Sheldon Keefe’s Decision Are Something To Watch As Toronto Maple Leafs’ Regular Season Concludes

Sheldon Keefe’s decisions coming down the stretch of the regular season might be the only reason to follow the Toronto Maple Leafs. When your first-round opponent has been known for weeks-if not months. In addition, your team has not made it to the second round since Facebook was launched as a social networking site. Followers of the Leafs may be excused for shifting their attention to March Madness.

Sure, some might consider home-ice advantage versus the Tampa Bay Lightning necessary, but other items are more important. Determining the lineup, avoiding injuries, and team chemistry are just a few of the necessary things on Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas’ “to-do” list.

Deciding On Lineup Is Keefe’s Most Important Decision

Lately, you can envision Keefe with a bowl of lottery balls with player numbers that he uses to determine that game’s roster. Since the trade deadline additions, the combinations are numerous. The acquisitions of Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, and Sam Lafferty provide unprecedented depth and flexibility to the forward units. Once O’Reilly returns from his hand injury, it is incumbent upon Keefe to find the right combinations for all four lines. Does he load the top two lines with skill? Does he spread out his stars across the top 9? Also, he must come up with a fourth line that can contribute regular minutes without causing nervous nail-biting while they are on the ice.

On defence, the Leafs still lack a dominant minute-munching stud. However, the additions of Jake McCabe, Luke Schenn, and Erik Gustafsson have also brought depth to the blue line. Over the next few weeks, Keefe must determine the top 6 that will give his team the best chance against the Lightning.

Team Chemistry Must Be Addressed

Early in the season, not many people would have thought Calle Jarnkrok would be taking up residence alongside Auston Matthews. Who had William Nylander with Lafferty and Bobby McMann? The new trio of defencemen must mesh with mainstays Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Justin Holl, Timothy Liljegren, and Mark Giordano. A starting goaltender is also important.

Naysayers suggest when you add 6 new players into the lineup late in the season will affect the team’s chemistry. Line combinations and defence pairings that bring out the best in the players are critical. Keefe’s tinkering over the final games of the regular season must bring the optimal lineup ready to conquer the battle-tested, multiple Stanley Cup-winning Lightning.

Avoiding Injuries and Load Management Are Necessary

Avoiding injuries in a physical sport like hockey is largely based on good fortune, but preventative measures can be taken. Forcing older workhorses like John Tavares and Giordano to take a night off is the proper approach.

The flip side is that athletes are creatures of habit. Most (all?) players don’t want to be taken out of the lineup, but other alternatives are available. Less ice time from Matthews, Nylander, Tavares,  Mitch Marner, and Rielly is a consideration.

Focus and Intensity Must Be Maintain

After determining the best lineup and managing key players’ ice time, Keefe must convince his team that they still have lots to play for. The last thing he wants is a team that has been going through the motions and facing the Lightning come April. Yes, maintaining home-ice advantage for the first round is one motivation. However, key games against the Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and Lightning are preparation for the intensity of the playoffs that await. Games against a desperate borderline playoff team such as the Florida Panthers should also provide a challenge.

Sheldon Keefe’s decisions as head coach of the Leafs have never been more critical. Especially now that Dubas has provided him with more depth than he has ever had. The final exam is approaching. His job may depend on it.

Main Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports