After firing head coach Mike Babcock last week, many wondered if his replacement in Sheldon Keefe would be able to avoid a rocky start with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
So far, so good.
The Leafs have won Keefe’s first three games behind the bench and have outscored their opponents 14-4.
While it is a small sample size, it’s hard to disagree with what has been one of, if not the best stretch of play from the roster all season.
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Many of the gripes with Babcock came from his systemic choices: too limiting in the offensive zone, and too passive in the defensive zone.
But with an opportunity to hit the reset button, here are five players who have hit a new gear under the new bench boss.
1. Tyson Barrie
Could you expect anyone else to lead off this list? After going scoreless in his first 23 games in a Maple Leaf uniform, offseason acquisition Tyson Barrie has now potted a goal in each of Keefe’s first three games. Along with notching two assists, his five points under Keefe have accounted for nearly half of his season total of 12.
Moving up to the team’s first power play unit has allowed Barrie to play in a role more familiar to his usage in Colorado.
There were some rumblings that Barrie could be wanting out from Toronto, being in a contract year and not performing well on what was a sinking ship as little as over a week ago. But as the Leafs find themselves in a playoff spot once again and with a new coach to build trust with, Barrie should be able to perform as one of the team’s top players over the course of this season.
2. Travis Dermott
Travis Dermott’s quotes about Babcock’s departure were among the most telling to the narrative that the former Leafs coach had lost the trust of his players.
"I think we are just ready for a different vibe"
"Boys want to play for him (Keefe)"
Travis Dermott pre-game interview. pic.twitter.com/TmruRnoc0g
— Leafs ALL Day (@LeafsAllDayy) November 22, 2019
Dermott has been paired with Barrie on most of his shifts the last three games, giving more balance to the team’s defensive pairs while allowing the third-year player to amp up his ice time.
Like Barrie, Dermott found the net Wednesday night against Detroit and played a season-high 20:13.
3. William Nylander
With more goals and points than anyone on the roster not named Auston Matthews, it’s safe to say William Nylander is having a bounce-back year after a tough 2018-19 campaign.
Though he may still never be able to completely dodge what seems to be an endless amount of criticism, the 23-year-old’s on-ice contributions have been tough to argue with this season.
In three games under Keefe, the Leafs have outshot their opponents 36-21 with Nylander on the ice at five-on-five while outscoring them 4-1. This included a particularly dominant performance against Detroit, where Nylander was on the ice for 19 Leafs shots (including four of his own) and registered a goal and an assist in a little over 14 minutes of ice time.
4. Jason Spezza
Signing in Toronto in the offseason, it was clear from the start of the season that Jason Spezza and Babcock didn’t always quite see eye-to-eye. Spezza was often sat as a healthy scratch, being left out of the lineup six times in October alone.
The 36-year-old centre has been forced to play up on the third line occasionally due to injury, and he’s made the most of his opportunities.
Three goals and six assists in 16 games is about all you can ask for from a bottom-six forward. Although he may not be the point-per-game talent he was during his Ottawa Senators days, the Toronto native seems to have found his niche, picking up a pair of assists so far in his first three games under Keefe.
5. Mitch Marner
While he still sits fourth on team scoring (despite being out for the last two weeks with an ankle injury), Mitch Marner hasn’t always looked like himself this season.
His production on the power play has kept up his overall point totals, but just four points in 18 games at five-on-five is a far cry from the 58 points he put up last season.
Despite not playing a game for Keefe yet due to injury, we’re going to go ahead and conclude that he’ll thrive under the new coach.
A story from Marner’s rookie year came out this past week about a list Babcock required him to make (and later show to the team) about how he ranked his own teammates from most-to-least hardest working. And even if Babcock and Marner were able to put that incident behind them, it’s likely #16 could still benefit from a coaching change.
One of the more creative players in the league, Marner should be able to use his abilities to create space in the offensive zone.