GLENDALE, ARIZ.—If there was a Maple Leaf who seemed happiest about Sheldon Keefe’s arrival as the team’s 31st head coach, and the list of candidates was long, it was easy to make a case for Tyson Barrie.
Barrie’s 23 games with Mike Babcock as head coach coincided with the worst slump of the defenceman’s career. Among the most offensively potent blue-liners in the league during the previous two seasons in Colorado, under Babcock he’d posted a grand total of seven points, all assists. His 59 shots on net were the most of any NHLer who’d yet to score a goal this season.
In the lead-up to Thursday night’s 3-1 win here over the Coyotes — a long-awaited victory that broke a six-game winless streak — Barrie called Keefe’s promotion to head coach “a new lease.” And Barrie certainly occupied the new territory well, scoring his first goal as a Maple Leaf to open the scoring on an aggressive move off the point and a pinpoint wrister that beat Darcy Kuemper.
“I think (the team is) excited,” Barrie said before the game. “You don’t ever want to see a coach get let go. It means a team’s underperforming … But now we’ve got to look at it as a fresh start. This is a chance for us to find ourselves and really get going.”
Certainly the Leafs looked like a different version of themselves in their first game in the post-Babcock era. They skated with more zip, occupied the offensive zone with more authority and creativity, spent far less time hemmed in their own end than in many recent outings. And they actually smiled, both at the morning skate and in the course of their work night, something you didn’t regularly see under Babcock. It was one game, sure, but it was a promising one.
The only down moment came with 16 seconds to play, when Vinnie Hinostroza’s goal busted what would have been Frederik Andersen’s first shutout in more than a year.
Though the Leafs began the day in 25th place in the 31-team league as measured by points percentage, a new optimism was palpable. Barrie, for one, said it meant something that he was used on the team’s No. 1 power-play unit during morning skate — although Toronto didn’t manage a power-play opportunity on the night.
“I think they’re just trying to get me more involved and trying to get me in a position to be successful,” Barrie said.
Keefe arrived Thursday morning vowing to extract the best out of each and every Maple Leaf. There might not be another with more untapped potential than Barrie.
- First goal for a change: The Leafs, who’d fallen behind 1-0 in 18 of their first 23 games, found themselves ahead 1-0. It was their first lead in a game since they beat the L.A. Kings on Nov. 5.
- First goal as a Leaf: Pierre Engvall’s short-handed goal, which gave Toronto a 2-0 lead late in the second period, was his first as an NHLer in his second career game since being called up from the Marlies. Engvall nearly fell while celebrating. The whole thing even got a smile out of Keefe. Toronto’s man-short unit, which had allowed 17 goals against in the previous 16 games, was perfect in three short-handed situations.
- Hometown boy: Local native Auston Matthews scored to make it 3-0. It was his first goal in 10 road games, snapping a career-worst drought.
- Changes abound: Keefe’s first game in the NHL brought plenty of tweaks to the lineup. The line centred by John Tavares saw Ilya Mikheyev on left wing while Zach Hyman switched to right. Kasperi Kapanen, who’d been a regular on the Tavares line, was swapped to the third line, joining centre Jason Spezza and left winger Alex Kerfoot, who was making his full-face-shield return from a three-game absence due to jaw surgery. And after 18 straight games as a fourth-liner, Nick Shore was scratched to make way for a fourth line made up of Frederik Gauthier, Engvall and Nic Petan.
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- Precedent for success: Before Keefe was introduced this week, the previous time the Leafs appointed a head coach with zero NHL experience was when they replaced Pat Burns with Nick Beverley circa 1996. Beverley lasted all of 17 regular-season games and lost his only playoff series in six before being succeeded by Mike Murphy the following season. But rookie NHL coaches have enjoyed plenty of success. Burns was one, arriving in Montreal at age 36 in 1988 and guiding the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup final.
- Up next: Saturday at Colorado Avalanche, 7 p.m.
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