The Toronto Maple Leafs 2020-21 season in spite of winning the North Division and individual honors such as Auston Matthews winning the Rocket Richard Trophy and being nominated for the Lady Byng and Hart Trophies has to be considered a dismal failure, as the club suffered their fifth straight opening-round defeat in the Stanley Cup Playoffs under the administration of Team President Brendan Shanahan.
After three straight first-round eliminations at the hands of Washington and Boston, the Leafs went less than two months into the 2019-20 season before firing head coach Mike Babcock in favor of Sheldon Keefe. The Calder Cup-winning Keefe had success with a more flexible coaching style than his predecessor, going 27-15-5 before the season was shut down due to the pandemic, but that did not translate to postseason success, as Toronto was eliminated by Columbus.
Keefe kept Dave Hakstol on as part of his staff, but Paul MacFarland and Andrew Brewer left the organization and were replaced by Manny Malhotra and Paul Maclean.
Once again, the Leafs had regular season success, going 35-14-7 with a revamped lineup that included an infusion of veterans Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian, and later Nick Foligno and Riley Nash. Unlike Babcock, Keefe relied heavily on his young core forwards, choosing to pair up Matthews and Mitch Marner on the same line and give them significant ice time. This resulted in career years for both.
Although Keefe kept his defensive pairings mostly the same throughout the season, the Leafs head coach was not hesitant to shake up forward line combinations depending on the time and situation of the game. Against Montreal, the injury to John Tavares limited Toronto’s ability to not be concerned with matchups and his inability to shake Matthews loose from Habs checking center Phillip Danault limited the Leafs top center to one goal and was a key factor in their loss in seven games.
While there will be no changes at the top, Toronto’s continuing failure in the playoffs may result in further shakeups of their coaching staff. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman indicated on Saturday that some of the Leafs assistants have received interest from other NHL clubs.
Malhotra received the lion’s share of the blame for the Leafs anemic power play in the second half of the regular season, but the former Canuck is well thought of in league circles. Hakstol is a former head coach in Philadelphia and with North Dakota and might be drawing interest from US colleges.
Friedman said that the Leafs would keep their staff the same if the assistants did not leave for other opportunities, which might be an indicator that they are worried about how long of a rope they and Keefe have in Toronto past next season.
*******If you are interested in sponsorship or advertising your business in the Greater Toronto / Southern Ontario area on this column, please send a message for more information by clicking on the “Contact” button at the top of the page.*******