Rapid turnaround by Keefe’s Leafs adds fuel to early award buzz

Sheldon Keefe would no doubt prefer to focus on the Maple Leafs’ next game rather than any early coach-of-the-year buzz.

There’s no denying, however, that Keefe has done an admirable job since he took from Mike Babcock on Nov. 20. The Leafs are 14-4-1 since then and riding a nine-game points streak, heading into Saturday’s home date against the New York Islanders.

It’s still a small sample size, but Keefe’s success in six weeks on the job stands out among Leafs coaches who arrived as in-season replacements. That group includes several significant names in franchise history:

  • Punch Imlach (for Billy Reay, Nov. 28, 1958)
  • Mike Nykoluk (for Joe Crozier, Jan. 10, 1981)
  • George Armstrong (for John Brophy, Dec. 17, 1988)
  • Tom Watt (for Doug Carpenter, Oct. 26, 1990)
  • Nick Beverley (for Pat Burns, March 3, 1996)
  • Randy Carlyle (for Doug Wilson, March 3, 2012)
  • Peter Horachek (for Carlyle, Jan. 6, 2015)

Keefe’s record is not on par with Craig Berube’s championship turnaround with the Blues last season, which earned the St. Louis coach second place in voting for the Jack Adams Award. For Keefe, though, the task of taking over a team that was disoriented under Babcock and allowing it to find itself has been a success — from five points out of a wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference to second in the Atlantic Division.

“There’s a lot of ways I can try to explain it, but just fun is the way that does it the most justice,” Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott said after Thursday’s 6-3 win in Winnipeg, about the change in atmosphere with Keefe in charge. “The boys are just doing our thing. We’re supporting each other, and then we’re given the freedom … to use our skill.”

One of the biggest beneficiaries has been forward William Nylander, who has six goals and 11 points in his last five games. For the season, he has with 19 goals and 38 points in 42 games after scoring just seven goals in 54 games a year ago.

“It’s one thing to have confidence in yourself off the ice, and you’re feeling good off the ice,” Keefe said after Nylander’s two-goal effort in Winnipeg. “Then the game starts and it’s just not really happening for you. You’re not really overly involved in the game, and that in itself can make you lose confidence.

“He just hasn’t had any lulls in his game. That’s been the nicest thing to see is, he’s just been on it every shift. And it’s not just the offensive pieces. It’s winning puck battles and coming up with loose pucks all over the ice, and keeping himself on offence and putting his linemates in good spots.”

In addition to the 14-4-1 record — they were 9-10-4 under Babcock — the Leafs are averaging an NHL-leading 4.2 goals per game since Keefe’s arrival. Over that span, they have also had the NHL’s best power-play production at 35.7 per cent, with an 81.2 per cent rate on the penalty kill.

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Under Babcock, the Leafs were scoring 3.4 goals a game, the power play was at 17.6 per cent and the penalty kill was 73.1 per cent.

That performance has Keefe in the early Adams conversation along with last year’s winner, Barry Trotz of the Islanders, plus Boston’s Bruce Cassidy, Colorado’s Jared Bednar, Washington’s Todd Reirden and Minnesota’s Bruce Boudreau.

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