by Terry Koshan
What a long, strange trip it was.
From the most dismal loss of the season in Pittsburgh, to the firing of Mike Babcock and the hiring of Sheldon Keefe, to an inspirational victory in Denver, the Maple Leafs ran the full range of emotions in the past nine days.
We’re willing to bet the team won’t experience something similar in 2019-20. Perhaps in the playoffs. But we’ll have to get back to you on that.
“Night and day,” said defenceman Tyson Barrie, who scored his first two goals of the season in consecutive victories after Keefe took over.
“(Pittsburgh) was a dark place for a lot of us. That game especially (a 6-1 loss Saturday) was a bit embarrassing. To be able to go home .500 (on the four-game trip), and be rolling a bit, it’s a great feeling.
“(Bonding) started a bit in Vegas and we’re tight. We’re all loving each other so it’s a fun group to be a part of.”
Babcock was fired last Wednesday exactly 4 1/2 years after was hired, and though the Leafs in the following days talked about taking some responsibility, it quickly became clear that a pall had been lifted in the dressing room.
And it’s not just because the injured Mitch Marner joined the Leafs the same day in Scottsdale, Ariz., where the club was staying at a golf resort. Marner’s outgoing manner in going about his daily business brought some relief to the group, but it was obvious that Babcock had run his course and could no longer make an impact on the group.
The daily message from Babcock — keep grinding, steady on the rudder, the sun will come up tomorrow — increasingly became empty words for a team that had lost six in a row.
Not only was a new voice needed, so too was a different style of coaching. At the age of 39, Keefe, we expect, will have an easier time properly relating to the players than Babcock did.
As the days have passed, the general feeling is emerging that Babcock didn’t have that at the top of his list of priorities.
Babcock long has taken a bashing on Twitter from former NHL player Mike Commodore, who has major issues with the way the coach treated him in Detroit.
A series of measured tweets on Saturday by former NHL defenceman Mark Fraser defended Commodore, with Fraser saying that based on his conversations and stories related to him “95%” of Babcock’s players “can’t say a good thing about” him. Fraser also tweeted that Babcock “used his power to turn teammates against each other.”
One tale was related to us in the past few days that is said to have occurred in the 2016-17 season, during the annual fathers trip.
Babcock was alleged to have asked one of the Leafs’ rookies to list the players on the team from hardest-working to those who, in the eyes of the rookie, didn’t have a strong work ethic. The rookie did so, not wanting to upset his coach, but was taken aback when Babcock told the players who had been listed at the bottom.
When Babcock scratched veteran Jason Spezza for the regular-season opener, a decision that was unnecessary and disrespectful, we received an e-mail from a long-time NHL observer wondering why Babcock would deliberately embarrass Spezza.
Babcock sometimes would take what were perceived as jabs at general manager Kyle Dubas during scrums with reporters.
Here’s a guarantee: That won’t happen with Keefe. Babcock wasn’t Dubas’ hire, having been brought aboard in 2015 by team president Brendan Shanahan.
Keefe values his friendship and working relationship with Dubas.
The Leafs posted a video on social media of the happy dressing room following Keefe’s first win in his first game on Thursday in Arizona. In the video, captain John Tavares tells the team the win “is the start of something special.”
The Leafs won two nights later in Denver. The belief that had eroded under Babcock is being built again.
“I think we have a tremendous group of people,” Tavares said when he was asked about his speech. “It has not gone the way we would like to start the year, but we have a lot of hockey left. We have had some changes, everyone is trying to embrace it the best we can and we want to keep it going.”