Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 22-20-6   Maple Leafs 25-16-7

PUCK DROP: 6pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago, NHL Network

ALL DAY: Pension Plan Puppets 

We’ve been doing this all season. The Hawks string together two or three wins, generally over bad teams, and look good in at least one of them, and a part of you wants to believe that something has clicked and just might go on a run to make the season interesting. They’re only four points out of a playoff spot, with only one team between them and that last wildcard spot, and you don’t even have to squint all that hard to make a case they could make a run at it. Especially when they’re chasing the Oilers, who are more guaranteed to have their intestines fall out than the Hawks. Vancouver and Arizona could also still make a thud.

And then usually they get thwacked by a good team and we start this all over.

So that’s what feels like is about to happen tonight, as the Hawks take their three wins against the Ducks, Sens, and Habs up against a real team. And the Leafs are the fully operational annoyance that they were forecasted to be. Casting off the shackles of Mike Babcock has had the effect that Kyle Dubas would have hoped, as Sheldon Keefe has helped everyone realize their joy again. The Leafs are more threatening, more dynamic, and quite a bit more scary now that Keefe has allowed them to “try shit.”

Which shouldn’t have been all that hard. The Leafs still have perhaps the richest array of offensive talent in the league. There certainly isn’t a team that can match Matthews-Tavares down the middle at 1-2, and Alex Kerfoot has enjoyed the sweetheart spot that used to belong to Nazem Kadri. Nylander, Marner, Hyman, Johnsson, Kapanen certainly don’t lessen the threat on the wings. If they’re on song, they can put up a touchdown on you before you’ve finished your Timbo’s.

But the problems for the Leafs are still the same, and they’re exacerbated now. Both Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin are out for weeks with a broken foot each, and this wasn’t a great defense to begin with. It’s lead them to give Travis Dermott top pairing minutes, and use Tyson Barrie as a defensive specialist, neither of which is a path you’d choose lest your life depended on it. Keefe has at least kept Cody Ceci away from the top pairing.

And the goalie is far from sure either. The Leafs haven’t had a solid backup all season, as you saw evidenced by Michael Hutchinson KICK-ing every puck into his own net here in Chicago last time they met (get it?). But Fab Five Freddie Andersen has been bad for six weeks now, partly due to exhaustion. Also he’s Freddie Andersen, which is the definition of “just good enough to break your heart.”

For the Hawks, Brandon Saad could suit up tonight, but that’s looking like a gametime decision. Brandon Hagel could make his NHL debut after being Rockford’s leading scorer. With optional morning skates we’re guessing along with all of you. Corey Crawford will get the start, with Lehner taking the back half of the double tomorrow night at home against Winnipeg.

Once again, the Hawks have risen to at least the discussion of a playoff spot. But now they’ll be facing two teams that are either good or competing with them for that spot, and it’s a spot where they’ve generally fallen flat on their face. The Leafs aren’t invulnerable here, given the state of their defense and Andersen’s level right now. But getting into a track meet with this team almost certainly equals death, and yet the Hawks don’t have the structure generally to keep things tight. They did so for most of the game against the JV version of the Leafs in Montreal, but this is the real thing.

They were able to hilariously add on to a Leafs crisis last year in T.O, even though Duncan Keith did his best to ruin all that work. It’s a big stretch here on the weekend and then Quenneville Bowl on Tuesday. The Hawks have to put it together now, so five of six points is minimum before we even consider believing they can actually take this to the wire.

Plus, beating the Leafs is always fun.

Hockey

Certainly there’s more to Sheldon Keefe than just his work behind the bench with the Leafs. We discussed that here, though have come to learn later that some of it is no longer the case. Today we’re just here to discuss his work the past two months with the Leafs, and leave the rest for another day.

What was clear before Keefe arrived is that life under Mike Babcock was miserable for the Leafs. Auston Matthews had just about completely tuned him and the staff out, and Hockey Night In Canada had a few chronicles of him looking dejected with them on the bench. He wasn’t alone, as Babcock’s simply abusive personal style and his stifling tactics had choked the life out of Toronto. So really anyone coming in, their simple task was to make the Leafs enjoy hockey again. That doesn’t sound all that hard when you consider the talent on offer here.

Oh, and maybe not play Cody Ceci so much.

So how has Keefe done? Whatever he is actually doing, he has certainly freed up the Leafs. Before Babcock’s firing, the Leafs had a positive possession-share but were below water in expected-goals to the tune of 47.9%. That should have never happened with the arsenal the Leafs have. Keefe obviously realized this, because since he took over the Leafs’ expected goals-percentage is 54.8, third best in the league behind Vegas and Tampa, the latter of which you might have noticed have lost like one game in the past two months.

And as you might expect, the Leafs have improved their numbers by simply upping the offense. This is a team that has at least three scoring lines and should just be bludgeoning teams. Their attempts per 60 have only gone up about one per game, but their expected goals-for has gone from 2.14 under Babcock to 2.69 under Keefe. That’s a rise of 25%. Their scoring chances per 60 has risen at just about the same rate, so clearly Keefe has found a way to get the Leafs in more dangerous areas more often. Which against the quality of finishing the Leafs have, is death to most teams.

What might really rankle Babcock is the Leafs have gotten better defensively as well, though that’s probably to do with having the puck more and creating better chances. But their expected goals-against has gone down from 2.33 under Babs to 2.22 now. Offense sometimes is the best defense?

Luck of course plays a role, though Leafs followers would argue that a happier team is more prone to get the bounces, especially when they’re forcing things more as they are. The Leafs shot 7.8% under Babcock, and that’s risen to 9.6 under Keefe. The SV% has also gone up, from .909 to .916 at evens.

The power play is also clicking a little better, with 19 goals in Keefe’s 25 games after 13 in Babs’s 23, and that might be a result of letting Matthews freelance a little more on it. The motion the Leafs get is akin to when the Sharks’ PP became self-aware a few years ago. They’re also getting that kind of movement at even strength, and there are very few teams that can live with that speed when it’s allowed to go wherever it wants.

Of late, Keefe hasn’t been hesitant to shift things around. Matthews had spent most of his time earlier with William Nylander and Andreas Johnsson, and now Marner has replaced Nylander on the top line. Zach Hyman has replaced Johnsson. Considering their xGF% is 65% together, it’s clearly working.

Keefe’s big tests are yet to come. He’ll be without both Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly for the next few weeks as both have broken a foot (how adorbs). And of course, no one’s going to care about anything until the Leafs get past the first round. Perhaps any coach could have lightened the mood simply by not being the overrated, raging asshole that Babcock apparently was. Still, the results are the results, and the Leafs certainly are a more fun bunch to watch and be around now.

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.