Keefe, Barabanov, Marner & Shanahan

For the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 2019-20 season had its ups-and-downs. However, when new head coach Sheldon Keefe took over from the departed Mike Babcock, the team’s play drastically changed and the season improved for both players and for fans.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Dubas, Trade Thoughts, Domi & Loponen

Although the regular season remains on suspension, there is news coming out of the Maple Leafs organization. In this post, I hope to help fans keep up with this news.

Item One: Sheldon Keefe’s Successful First Season

If the NHL regular season is over, history will show that new head coach Sheldon Keefe started his NHL coaching career successfully. He certainly coaches an exciting brand of hockey; as a fan, you get a sense that he’s a players’ coach, however that might be defined. He gives his players increased latitude — yet, as William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen discovered, Keefe will bench them if he detects any lack of “interest” on the ice.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks to captain John Tavares
(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

As I saw it, Maple Leafs players were successful in part because Keefe did two things his predecessor had not. First, he gave his stars considerably more ice time. Second, he emphasized an up-tempo style. Those two things in tandem helped a number of players achieve personal NHL career bests.

Specifically, both Auston Matthews (who scored 47 goals) and Nylander (who scored 31 goals) achieved career bests. Zach Hyman — although he missed a good portion of the front-end of the season rehabbing surgery for a knee injury — tied his previous high of 21 goals scored. He’s played amazingly well this season.

Sadly, Matthews, who was on pace to become the fourth Maple Leafs player to score at least 50 goals in a season, missed that goal. Previously, Rick Vaive had scored 50 goals three times (in 1981-82, 1982-83, and 1983-84), Dave Andreychuk scored 50 goals twice (in 1992-93 and 1993-94), and Gary Leeman scored 50 goals once (in the 1989-90 season).

Item Two: Will the Maple Leafs Sign the KHL’s Alexander
Barabanov?

If you’re a Maple Leafs fan, you might want to believe in karma. When Ilya Mikheyev suffered the horrifying laceration of his wrist and had to have emergency surgery, general manager Kyle Dubas kept the young Russian company while he was in the hospital — hanging out, talking, and watching sports for the better part of three days.

Related: Toronto Maple Leafs’ 50-Goal Scorers

As Dubas credits it, it was his wife’s idea. When asked why he did it, Dubas noted that his wife Shannon told him that, if roles were reversed and their son was going through something like this in Russia, they’d want “every assurance he was being properly cared for.” Hence, Dubas stepped up.

Now, given the speculation that KHL free agent winger Alexander Barabanov is looking to move to the NHL, it might matter that he and Mikheyev share the same agent, Dan Milstein. After the injury, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported that Milstein told him “Kyle went above and beyond his duty” in how he treated the Russian rookie. Specifically, Milstein noted that Dubas spent time with Mikheyev in the hospital and personally bought him clothes and other personal effects.

Otto Leskinen Finland Canadiens
Finland’s Otto Leskinen is checked by Russia’s Alexander Barabanov. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP /Dmitri Lovetsky)

Now kindness, friendship, and good karma might pay off in other ways. Because the Dubas (and by representation the Maple Leafs) family realized Mikheyev didn’t speak English well, was away from his own family, and had undergone emergency surgery, being a good friend puts the Maple Leafs on a short-list of teams Barabanov and his agent would consider.

As a result, it’s no surprise that reports are surfacing from Russia that the Maple Leafs might be close to signing him. Still, that logic aside, other reports suggest the Maple Leafs might be in the conversation, but the deal’s not done yet. In fact, Sport-Express reporter Igor Eronko notes that the Maple Leafs might be a leading candidate to sign the 25-year-old Russian, but three teams are in the discussion, including the Arizona Coyotes. 

TSN’s Darren Dreger also weighed in, suggesting that Barabanov might not even make the jump to the NHL next season. He tweeted:

For those who don’t know Barabanov, he’s a 25-year-old forward who’s played seven seasons with St. Petersburg SKA. Over the past four seasons, he’s averaged almost 12 goals a season playing in about 50 games each season. He’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 191 pounds, but Lance Hornby suggests he’s much smaller — about 5-foot-8 and 159 pounds. Still, because Dubas likes small and skilled players, size doesn’t matter much in the Maple Leafs organization — hence drafting Nick Robertson. If you can play, you can play.

Related: Scotty Bowman: A Coach’s Life

If you’re asking why the Maple Leafs might want another forward, there are two reasons. First, the team has had success with KHL players, so why not? Second, there are rumors that the team might trade a forward (think Kasperi Kapanen or Alex Kerfoot) for a defenseman and need skill coming in to replace skill going out.

Item Three: How Does Mitch Marner’s Contract Look Now?

Given how the season unfolded, can an argument be made that Mitch Marner’s play might actually be living up to the size of his contract? Specifically, he scored 16 goals and 67 points in 59 games prior to the NHL’s stoppage of play in early March. Many — myself included — believed the Maple Leafs paid too much when they signed him to a huge six-year, $65.4 million contract in September.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Still, he’s made a case that he’s certainly a star both offensively and
defensively. He’s easily averaged over a point per game and, in Keefe’s new
system, has averaged a strong 21:33 of ice time per game over the season. Because
he’s only 22 years old, Marner might not even have hit his prime and there’s a
chance he’ll continue to improve over the next few seasons.

If this coronavirus settles and the NHL continues as it was going, there’s a chance Marner’s contract will look team-friendly in a few years. That seems to be what’s happened with Nylander’s contract.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

No one really knows what’s next for the team; however, in response to the coronavirus, about two weeks ago the five professional sports teams in Toronto collaborated to create “The Team Toronto Fund.” As part of the fund, team management, coaches, and players from all five teams will contribute help to workers who require support.

Related: Maple Leafs 2019 Draft Picks: Grading Robertson, Kokkonen & Abramov

As Maple Leafs President & Alternate Governor Brendan Shanahan noted, “As we’re dealing with these unprecedented circumstances, we’re seeing this as a time where our communities can band together and take care of one another.”

That’s a good message for all of us — take care of each other.

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