Everything Else Hockey

Last week, as everyone saw coming and now everyone is aware of, the Toronto Maple Leafs finally whacked Mike Babcock after a tepid start to the season, as well as because his mostly younger players absolutely hated his guts. Since then, in true after-the-fact bus tossing fashion, plenty of stories have come out about how Babcock ruled with an iron fist and was out of touch with the modern generation of players. And while all of those stories are absolutely to be believed, it’s burying the lede on what should be the real story here, and that’s the rapid ascension of Babs’ successor, Sheldon Keefe.

Please be advised, that while the specifics remain vague, the rest of this article will discuss sexual abuse and all applicable warnings may apply.

If the name Sheldon Keefe sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Keefe was a notorious delinquent even in junior, when as captain of the OHL champion Barrie Colts in 2000, he famously refused to shake the hand of then-commissioner David Branch, as well as staged a walkout during an awards banquet, and threatened future Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards. All of this was under the manipulation of Coach David Frost, who had several run ins with the OHL himself, and even had an assistant smuggle a player into the country and was ultimately fined $25,000. Frost’s name should ring a bell too, as he was the target of a murder for hire plot from one of his former players Mike Danton/Mike Jefferson, who had accused Frost of sexual assault as a motive for his actions. Danton and Keefe were teammates and friends, having played hockey together from an early age. And at Frost’s trial, Keefe provided testimony as Frost’s alibi witness.

After only 125 NHL games, Keefe’s NHL playing career ended, and began coaching the Pembroke Lumber Kings, a Junior A team he’d purchased, which is a level below the Canadian Major Junior leagues of the CHL (Ontario, Quebec, Western leagues) that most are familiar with. Keefe allowed Frost to even lurk around the periphery of his junior team even in the midst of all of the accusations. But, given his success at that level, it led him to a job with a major junior club, the Soo Greyhounds, hired by their child GM, Kyle Dubas. And it was there, and under Keefe’s watch, that three of his players were charged with sexual assault, Andrew Fritsch, Mark Petaccio, and current NHL-er Nick Cousins. As many, but not enough people have noted, that in the aftermath of the investigation (which was dropped by Canadian investigators given the unliklihood of a conviction, which is what oddly enough always seems to happen in cases like this), Dubas was famously flippant in his comments, and even went so far as to claim that his players were victims too:

“But as the manager of a junior hockey club, you’re entrusted with the lives of 16-20-year-olds,” said Dubas, who’s now completed two seasons in his present position. “We don’t judge how we went about things. We would never look back and say that we’re pleased or not. We just wanted to handle things the best we could. We supported the players as best we could with what they needed off the ice.”

“From the beginning, our team supported the legal process and law enforcement as they performed their investigation,” he added. “The scars remain for all of the people involved. But unfortunately there’s nothing we can do about that.”

That language flatly shows zero concern for the victim in this case, and even goes so far as to paint his already shitty, entitled players as victims themselves in this scenario. It’s an all too familiar refrain within the self perpetuating rape culture of the Athletic Industrial Complex, and is particularly rampant in junior hockey, which puts children as young as 14 at center stage even more than high school football in Texas does with its frequently maladjusted young athletes. It preaches entitlement and it breeds behavior like this.

And now that Keefe has ascended to the Leafs’ head coach after a stint (and a championship) in the AHL with Toronto’s affiliate Marlies, it’s behavior like this that deserves much closer scrutiny. While many were praising Dubas’ hire of Hayley Wickenhiser last summer in a player development role as a progressive and forward thinking move for a hockey organization, in the face of Keefe’s promotion it simply feels like window dressing, a bone to be thrown to the masses to chew on while all of this seedy behavior gets ignored and enabled. Dubas may look the part of the boy genius, right down to glinting smile and faux-nerd glasses, but make no mistake, he absolutely does not give a shit about any kind of actual progressivism as evidenced by his words and actions when pressed, and also by bringing on Sheldon Keefe and all his baggage at any point possible. He clearly only needs the appearance of it, and if the league or sport as a whole actually gave a shit about any of this, they’d call him on it repeatedly. But they’re too concerned if Mike Babcock made his rookies make ranked lists of the most hard working teammates, and if Keefe actually wins with this talented group on the ice, all of this will be shouted down from everyone in Canada anyway.

Everything Else

But how does this affect the Leafs?

Any time literally anything in hockey, or sports in general happens, the Canadian Hockey Media and 95% of Canadian hockey fans pen either short or longform thoughts on this exact hypothetical. Maple Leafs fans are the most populous group in the sport, and they are also the most vocal and the most incapable of dealing with other human beings on any real level. They have made a ball hockey playing Baby Huey, a face painted cigarette smoking sexist, and an actual psychopath shrieking in front of his action figures in his basement “experts” via social media. Those that don’t even fall into those extremes are far more concerned with salary cap ramifications than the realities of actually winning a championship because doing so would completely strip them of their narcissistic, cloyingly self-deprecating, head-up-their-own-ass fandom. The latter tendency has led them to form a cult around a Rivers Cuomo looking ass motherfucker of a GM, whose sexual politics might actually be worse that Rivers’ in simply brushing aside a sexual assault scandal when he was in charge of a junior team. But hey, he hired a woman and bloggers for the front office, and a Candian junior team needs to have a bus accident to avoid having a sexual assault scandal of one form or another, so Kyle Dubas is a beloved figure kind of by default. It’s a goddamn shame that the on-ice product will probably be some of the most watchable hockey in the league, because all of the bullshit around this team is enough to gag anyone whose face isn’t painted blue and white.

’17-’18: 49W-26L-7OT 105PTS 277GF 232GA 24.9%PP 81.4%PK 49.82%CF 9.01%SH .9287SV%

 

Forwards: Might as well switch up the format and get right to it here, because this was already one of the more stacked groups in the league, and it only got moreso by adding the biggest free agent since the last lockout in erstwhile Islanders captain and hometown boy John Tavares. But while the crowing masses already planning the parade down Yonge St. still love to squawk about Dubas’ being a BRAIN GEANIOUS, he still managed to throw the first ever maximum salary in the form of almost entirely lump sum signing bonuses at Tavares even when it probably wouldn’t have taken that much arm twisting to get him to want to play in his home town with the current roster. That’s not to say it’s not a brilliant contract, as the Leafs are one of maybe like 3 teams in the league that can possibly afford that much out of pocket and it’s tremendous leverage considering that money up front is always preferable for athletic contracts, but there’s no need to pretend like this is some small market coup as the masses did. The resultant flip side of that coin is that dynamic winger William Nylander is still an unsigned restricted free agent, and because most hockey fans are stupid and don’t realize that good players deserve to get paid, the line will likely be that he needs to take less money to keep this grouping together. Nylander still hasn’t reported to camp but he probably will, because nothing remotely interesting happens in these scenarios with the NHL’s boring ass GM’s. But even aside from Nylander, the Leafs have Auston Matthews to essentially be a co #1 center along with Tavares, which leaves the ever cantankerous and productive Nazem Kadri to take over the third/checking line assignment, where he will simply devour bums all season long. Mitch Marner‘s deft play making on the wing will make this top 6 arguably the best in the NHL, but there are still concerns here. For as much as everyone liked to talk shit, and deservedly so about Tyler Bozak‘s role in the Tronna offensive attack, he and the departed James Van Riemsdyk took a combined 98 points with them out the door to the Blues and Flyers respectively. John Tavares’ career high in point output is 86. So while this offense is certainly more dynamic, it might be running in place in terms of actual output, and preventing goals might be the bigger issue.

Defense: Now it gets fun. While Morgan Rielly (spell your name right dickhead) and Jake Gardiner are fine second pairing guys who can do a bit of everything alright, they’re not true #1 defensemen by any stretch of the imagination. Ron Hainsey is now 38 years old and will be asked to play more top 4 minutes. Nikita Zaitsev  needs to take a leap beyond being a bum slaying third pairing puck mover, but despite him being only in his third year in the league, he’ll be 27 next month, so at this point he kind of is what he is. Connor Carrick and Travis Dermott don’t really do anything for anyone, so compared to a lot of other groupings even in this division, the Leafs blue line is found wanting.

Goaltending: And here it is, the great undoing. Freddy Andersen probably doesn’t deserve this level of preemptive blame or responsibility, but deserve’s got nothing to do with it. Last year Andersen was completely serviceably average with a .918 overall and a .921 at evens, and proceeded to implode in the playoffs with an .896 in the Leafs’ 7 games of the first round. It’s not the first time Freddy has shat himself in the post-season, as a lifetime ago he sported a .901 in a 7 game Western Conference Final loss to the locals in red and black. “Frederik Andersen” is simply Dutch for “Evgeni Nabakov”- just good enough to break his team’s heart. He’ll be backed up at least to begin with by LOCAL GUY Garrett Sparks, whose 17 games of NHL experience came three years ago when the Leafs were willfully in the toilet trying (and succeeding) to tank for Auston Matthews.

Outlook: It’s a goddamn shame that everything else about this team sucks shit and is wildly irritating, because the process by which this team has been built has been as textbook as anyone could ask for in the modern NHL, and their forward grouping will be healthy if electric. But for all the bouquets thrown his way, Mike Babcock still has his blind spots and will find a way to get tomato cans into the lineup and coach conservatively despite having a trapeze troupe up front. But that may end up serving the team well given the state of things on the back end and in net, which will likely ultimately lead them to a second round out at the latest as other, more balanced teams within their division, specifically Tampa, will find ways to tear through the gaping holes on that blue line.

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