In this post, I am looking back exactly a week ago. On Sunday, August 9, the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated from the postseason when they were beaten in Game 5 of their best-of-five game series with the Columbus Blue Jackets. It seems like a long time ago now, but it was just a week.
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Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston’s Review of the Game
When the Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reviewed the state of the Toronto Maple Leafs the day after the team’s series-ending loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, he began by critiquing the “Shanaplan.” As Maple Leafs fans know, the philosophy of the plan put forward by organization President Brendan Shanaplan about how to build winning hockey teams essentially believes team success – winning and losing – will come if the Maple Leafs can collect and ice tremendous offensive talent that can control the puck well enough to keep it into the opponent’s zone all game long.
A number of hockey commentators – myself included – believe that plan makes sense. The team that has the puck always has a better chance of scoring. That’s not complex.
In Johnston’s writing he admitted that, at least on paper, the idea made sense to him. However, the way the Maple Leafs had employed that philosophy came – Johnston believed – at a cost. Specifically, he believed that, although the team had successfully loaded up on offense, the result of that “loading up” created a team defense that was in his words “second rate.”
Johnston’s criticism is hardly new: it’s been the team’s Achilles heel all season long. In addition, during the postseason, he also noted that the defense took a huge blow when Jake Muzzin was injured late in Game 2. That much is true.
Where I Disagree with Johnston
So far, I’m mostly with Johnston. Then he zigs when I believe he might have zagged. He also stated that, because during the Blue Jackets series Sheldon Keefe didn’t get good bang for his buck from the team, he was “forced” to unite John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner during the final game, which turned out to be a 3-0 loss that clinched the series for the Blue Jackets.
Then, with the creation of a super line, Keefe couldn’t trust the rest of his forwards to have the depth to answer the call when he spread their talent across different lines. He offered no thoughts about Keefe’s decisions except to imply that they were inevitable.
Didn’t Keefe Have Other Options?
Johnston quotes Keefe as saying, “Well we’ve obviously found it difficult through this series to generate offense and get chances. I thought that our best opportunity to do so would be to have those guys playing together.”
Obviously, Keefe’s plan had worked well two days before when the Maple Leafs powered back from a three-goal deficit to win in overtime 4-3. During that game, with nothing to lose but the series, Keefe rode his big guns – and they came through.
But, should he have employed this same lineup from the beginning of the game? Did that strategy fall right into the Blue Jackets strength of having one pair – two – great defensemen – Seth Jones and Zach Werenski?
Choices That Struck Me as Odd
Before I engage in these thoughts, I want to share two caveats. First, these are my own thoughts. I haven’t heard them anywhere else. I find that a bit surprising, but perhaps not. Second, I am a Keefe fan. I am also a Kyle Dubas fan and I support the Shanaplan because I think it does make sense plus I think it’s exciting hockey.
Four Things I Wonder Why Keefe Did
First, why did Keefe only dress Andreas Johnsson for Game 4? The series had been even through the first four games. A funny puck bounce or a goal post hit by Tavares that had bounced in and the Maple Leafs might have won the series. So why make changes? At the time, the move seemed desperate.
Why mess with young Nick Robertson who – by the way – had scored one your team’s few goals and had played with energy each game? His confidence took a hit with that choice.
Second, why put Zach Hyman with new and different linemates, which altered what had been hugely successful throughout all of the regular season. Hyman had a great season and, generally, plays well when he’s digging out the puck for his shooters. So, why make lineup changes that place him in a situation where, with these new line combinations, he might not be able to do what he does best.
Third, why play William Nylander at the center? I know it was practiced during Phase 3, and I also understand that someday Nylander could become a strong center. But why during the deciding game of the season would we put him into a new role in that key game of a difficult postseason series?
Like Nylander or not, he plays like a winger. That move didn’t seem fair to him and it was no surprise to me he looked out of synch. In general, was the series-deciding game the best time to experiment with shuffled, unproven line combinations and positions?
Finally, given that the Blue Jackets have two shutdown defencemen in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, was it wise to load up the team’s offense? Didn’t that play right into the Blue Jackets’ strength?
Just Some Final Thoughts
I don’t presume to know hockey as much as the coaches – they’re way more advanced in their thinking than I will ever be. Still, even for a huge Keefe supporter like myself, I have to say he made a number of coaching decisions that seemed odd.
Perhaps I’m alone in that thought, but looking back a week I still wonder.
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