Everyone’s job is on the line.
That, more than anything else, is the subtext of the opening of Maple Leafs training camp.
Kyle Dubas doesn’t have a contract for next year and there are no offers coming in the immediate future.
Sheldon Keefe is the betting man’s favorite to be first coach fired in the NHL this season. Brendan Shanahan has a deal – but basically, his future as president of the Leafs is tied to his chosen general manager and by extension the GM’s coach of choice.
It is likely three in or three out and the level of uncertainty around the Maple Leafs is at a modern high, beginning with those who make decisions, more pressure internally than they’ve faced before, and maybe a clear message from the normally quiet ownership of the Maple Leafs – assuming Bell and Rogers are on speaking terms – is that great seasons followed by short playoffs won’t be rewarded anymore.
Officially camp begins Thursday morning with on-ice drills and the usual September routine. But the many challenges for coach Keefe will be ongoing for the next several months. He has a collection of pieces that don’t necessarily fit together. He has goaltenders that were cast adrift by teams looking to win. He has a defense thinned out already by an injury to Timothy Liljegren and the foolish unsigned status of Rasmus Sandin. He has a third line that has Ilya Mikeyev gone to Vancouver and Pierre Engvall injured to begin the pre-season. He has a second line where the fine center John Tavares and the fine right-winger, William Nylander, play well, just not so well together. They’re like dancing partners missing their steps – players of skill, but not necessarily a line that worries anyone they happen to play against.
And that’s just as camp begins.
There is an old expression among coaches. If you can’t decide which goalie will be starting your next game – and the Leaf plan early on is to split the netminding – then you don’t have a starting goalie.
Keefe’s plan is to rotate Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov in the early going and have a first among equals competition: Last man standing, or last man healthy, wins.
And please don’t tell me that Erik Kallgren or Joseph Woll are NHL ready. There is nothing on their resume that indicates that to be true at this time in history.
Keefe’s easiest decision early on is to put his first line on paper. Auston Matthews will center Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting. They like that. He likes that. That’s the defending Hart Trophy winner on a line with the first team right wing all-star and a rookie of the year finalist. That’s 22 minutes a game, give or take power play time or penalty-killing time for Marner that Keefe doesn’t have to worry about.
That’s a line equal to or better than any other in the Eastern Conference.
The other challenges for Keefe are many, starting with the defensive structure of the team. More than they had to do with Jack Campbell in goal, more than they had to do when they had Frederik Andersen, the Leafs have to be more defensively responsible than they’ve been in years. They have to be their goalie’s best friends.
Dubas talked about this when we sat down the other day. The Leafs can’t play like they have Dominik Hasek in the net and hope to be bailed out. They have to be smarter on their own end, tougher in front of the net, and taking shooting lanes away. If they learned anything from their seven-game defeat by Tampa Bay last May, it wasn’t that Andrei Vasilevskiy beat them: It was the team game, the tight game, the shooting lane game that the Lightning played that eliminated Toronto in Games 6 and 7.
The Leafs must employ more of that to take the next step, and it’s not about getting 115 points but more importantly how you gain those points.
And part of building that equation is having a third line that works. David Kampf pencils are as a fine defensive, face-off winning, third-line centre. Now it’s a question of who he plays with. In the past, that’s where Mikeyev fit in and at times, Engvall. The year before they had Zach Hyman out of that line.
There is always Alex Kerfoot, one of Keefe’s favorite players, available for whatever job the coach asks of him. That’s the benefit of Kerfoot: He’s the Leafs handyman. He may wind up playing beside Tavares and Nylander. He may wind up with Kampf. He may wind up as a too expensive fourth liner.
The job for Keefe – and every successful NHL coach – is to take 20 pieces or more and determine distinct working rolls for any of them. And then collectively, pushing them all to succeed.
He’ll be pushing the players. Dubas will be pushing Keefe. That’s the way it works around this team. Dubas argues with Keefe almost daily. Keefe argues back. Voices get loud. That’s the genesis and strength of their relationship. They leave nothing unsaid. And then they do it all again the next day.
“We have a lot of great debates,” said Dubas the other day. “That’s the beauty of our relationship.”
A relationship tied together now by pressure and circumstance. With the heat turned higher than it’s been in these competitive years.