SIMMONS: Heat is on coach Sheldon Keefe to get struggling Maple Leafs together

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Mike Babcock was fired as coach of the Maple Leafs midway through Grey Cup Week, right after Hockey Hall of Fame weekend had ended in Toronto in 2019.

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He was fired because the Leafs lacked structure, didn’t have a team identity, were scored on too often and too easily, were weak on the penalty kill, didn’t know how to play without the puck, had a losing record and didn’t appear ready to compete most nights.

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Next week is Grey Cup Week in Hamilton. This is Hall of Fame weekend in Toronto.

A coach firing isn’t necessarily on the way, but the very reasons Babcock (personality aside) was let go — team lacking structure, team without an identity, team that gives up too many goals against, team that can’t play without the puck, team not ready to compete most nights — is the exact situation Sheldon Keefe finds himself in today.

The Leafs were 9-10-4 when Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas made the decision to fire Babcock. It probably came 23 games too late.

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The Leafs are 6-5-2 through 13 games, 10 games fewer than Babcock coached in 2013, but as of Thursday morning the numbers weren’t kind of the Leafs — they ranked 12th in goals for, 28th in goals against, 26th in penalty kill, fifth in power play, 25th in regulation wins and tied for 15th in points.

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The power play aside, this early season has been nothing short of a disaster for the supposed Stanley Cup contenders. And you see the tension in and around coach Keefe you rarely saw in any other season.

This is his first time working with general manager Brad Treliving. This is early in his fifth season coaching the Leafs. This isn’t supposed to be happening now.

In the past, Keefe had the protection of general manager Kyle Dubas, who was a huge believer in the coach.

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Treliving was impressed with the coach when they met over the summer in the numerous meetings they had. He believed they would make a great team, as coach and GM, but right now, that part of the team is failing, the coach is failing, the GM, for the most part, is failing.

It’s early — and that’s the great fallback for every team not meetings its goals — but the Leafs don’t look right and, if there’s a difference between the year in which Babcock was fired and the circumstances of today, it’s that the big guys on the club — Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, John Tavares and, to a lesser extent, Mitch Marner — are playing rather well.

Their best players have been their best players.

But the team still is giving up so many goals against that it would take six or seven goals scored to win most nights. Especially at home, where the Leafs seems to lack a defensive presence and goaltending of any quality.

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What the Leafs lack right now and what Keefe brought to the club when he took over as coach in 2019 is structure. They don’t play a structured game.

Over the years, despite the playoff failures, the Leafs have been reasonably well-structured under Keefe. They went from a team that couldn’t play defence at all to a team that could compete with just about everybody in the league on a nightly basis.

The structure he brought — and Treliving said as much when he broke down the Leafs film from last season — was impressive. For all the talk of the weakness on the Leafs blueline, they didn’t give up a whole lot.

That was then. Now, they’re giving up way much.

The Treliving signings of the off-season sure haven’t helped a lot. John Klingberg has been on the ice for 16 even-strength goals against. In Vancouver, Quinn Hughes, here at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday night, the early Norris Trophy favourite, has been on the ice for 19 goals scored, three goals against.

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Ryan Reaves, who barely plays, has been on the ice for no even-strength goals for, but nine against.

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The explosive Nylander has been part of 14 goals for at even strength for Toronto, but also 14 goals against. Similar with captain Tavares at 10 goals for, 10 against.

Your stars have to be more like David Pastrnak in Boston, a similar talent to Nylander. He, too has been on the ice for 14 goals for at even strength, but just six against. Structure does that for teams. Structure and goaltending.

The Leafs play Friday night against the struggling Calgary Flames and Saturday against the red-hot Vancouver Canucks before heading to Sweden — a trip they’d rather not take, considering the team circumstances.

Keefe isn’t in any danger of being fired — yet. But he’s not that far away from taking the heat for this hot mess unless his group, players, coaches, management, find a way to come together and fast.

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