Toronto Star Classroom Connection

Injuries mount

With Klingberg out, will GM make a deal on defence?


They lost their only game so far this week, and yet it still feels like something the Toronto Maple Leafs can build off of.

That’s because while Saturday’s overtime defeat at the hands of the Boston Bruins left one point on the table, it also didn’t include a Leafs bench minor for having too many men on the ice — a regular occurrence this season.

The Leafs lead the league with eight bench minor penalties, a shocking number considering they’ve played just 22 games and had 16 all of last season, tied for fifth in the NHL. Since the beginning of the 2021-22 season, Toronto leads the NHL with 31 one of them.

There’s no hiding the optics of this: the Leafs look disorganized more often than not. And who’s to blame? Of course a lot of it falls on the players, but to me there’s a general on the bench, and it’s ultimately a reflection upon head coach Sheldon Keefe.

When sitting on an NHL bench, everyone has to be aligned in what the responsibilities are. Changes should go as smoothly and calmly as possible. In Toronto, that’s not the case.

There are recurring issues on the ice that are contributing to this troubling trend and need to be addressed going forward, like bad line changes and players overextending the lengths of their shifts.

Staying on the ice for too long is something that may not be detected by many hockey fans, but a wellrun bench has to get this right. It’s the root cause of several factors that contribute to bench minor penalties.

After tallying their seventh toomany-men penalty in an overtime loss to the Blackhawks two weeks ago, Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was enraged. “I’ve lost patience,” Keefe said after the game. “I’ve already addressed it.”

Toronto has one bench minor in the four games since then — still one too many — but bad line changes continue to hurt this team.

The first two Bruins goals on Saturday night were linked to untimely line changes that put far too much pressure on an already taxed blue line. The Leafs rolled out the red carpet for David Pastrnak when he gained the blue line with tremendous speed for the first goal of the game Saturday night after Tyler Bertuzzi came off the ice at the most inopportune time.

Bertuzzi’s bad line change never gave Matthew Knies a chance to get back and help. Instead, seconds after replacing Bertuzzi, Pastrnak scored and Knies received an undeserved minus-one. It was another great example of how plus-minus can be a misleading barometer of a player’s defensive game — and how to easily piss off a teammate.

Boston’s second goal by Kevin Shattenkirk was equally as perplexing.

After a solid 50-second shift, Auston Matthews decided to come off the ice without the Leafs having possession of the puck, ostensibly giving Boston an unofficial power play. Matthews’ second-period change left John Tavaras scrambling to get back into his own zone on the other side of the ice with two very tired wingers in Knies and William Nylander who earlier passed up clean opportunities to come off the ice. Knies earned his minus on that shift, one that lasted 25 seconds longer than it should have.

These are the finer details that point to a lack of discipline that has not been reined in. Much of what is hurting the Leafs when it comes to closing out regular-season wins is a lack of basic hockey sense.

Having and maintaining control of the puck during a clean line change is fundamental. Not passing pucks through the bench area during a line change should be common sense. Changing in the offensive zone and not in the neutral zone will also help immensely. Shorter shifts, tracking the player you are replacing on the ice, making sure you don’t coast to the bench, limiting the number of stretch passes — something the Leafs try far too often — are all vital habits of a well-oiled NHL bench.

The Leafs aren’t the only team to struggle with what appears to be a simple part of the game. Believe it or not, managing the bench is a skill from both a player and coaching standpoint, and right now, it’s one they collectively need to continue to work on.

“When I coached Washington, we got too-many-men a few times,” Hall of Famer Adam Oates, who coached the Capitals from 20122014, said on the “Real Kyper and Bourne” show this week. “And I called (Alexander Ovechkin) and (Nicklas Backstrom) in and said, ‘Do I really have to have a meeting about this?’ And the answer was ‘ya.’ Because, you’re gonna laugh, but some guys don’t jump over the boards correctly.

“So I had to have a meeting, honest to God, about how to jump over the boards correctly.”

One of the worst habits NHL players pick up on the bench is taking their eye off the guy they are changing with. Even if a player’s body language suggests they might be coming off the ice, their mind could change in a split second, and it’s up to the player on the bench to recognize that and stay off the ice.

Maybe the Leafs need to relearn how to jump the boards like Ovechkin and Backstrom did. Maybe the leadership group should lead by example and clean up this mess.

Or maybe, if there are no signs of improvement in the next week or so, Keefe should seriously consider changing his coaching strategy. Benching the next player to cost the team a mindless penalty for longer than a shift or two might actually make an impact for once. How about scratching a player from the lineup altogether to drive this point home?

It may seem harsh, but sometimes coaching with consequences makes players actually feel more accountable.

The Maple Leafs have a talented roster and are capable of competing with top teams like Boston and Florida, who, by the way, have combined for just three bench minors this season, in the Atlantic Division.

But these avoidable self-inflicted wounds need to stop soon, because they’re the kind of thing that can come back to cost teams a playoff game, or worse, a shot at competing for the Stanley Cup — just ask the 1979 Boston Bruins.

Change my mind

On all this NHL expansion talk:

I’m not in favour of adding new teams until some current teams can prove they aren’t glorified American Hockey League clubs.





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