No answer yet for Leafs' backup situation under Sheldon Keefe

Apparently Sheldon Keefe is without an answer for everything.

Losing 6-4 to the Buffalo Sabres on Friday afternoon, the Toronto Maple Leafs dropped to 0-7 with a backup netminder in goal this season. Once again, the loss belongs to Michael Hutchinson, who has now allowed a dreadful 28 goals in six starts, helping the Leafs earn just a single point all year.

John Tavares continued to build on his offensive resurgence under Keefe, scoring the first two goals of the game. But the best player on the ice was Jack Eichel, who completely outshined his friend and star counterpart Auston Matthews with two goals, three points and eight shots.

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Both teams will make like Black Friday shoppers and cross the border before reconvening at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday night for the rematch.

Until then, three points:

Chicken or the egg?

While just about everything has been different since Keefe took over for Mike Babcock last week, the Maple Leafs fell into a similar trap with their backup — even with Hutchinson receiving the start on the first night of their back-to-back.

After taking a two-goal advantage into the second, it was another 10-to-15-minute stretch of spotty coverage, poor decision-making, and exposure their netminder simply had no answer for. The Sabres scored four goals on 13 shots and played almost exclusively in the attacking zone at even strength during the period, limiting the Leafs to two shots and zero scoring chances under the equal condition. Despite a far better third from Toronto, the Sabres had built up enough cushion to secure the two points in regulation.

So we remain without an answer to the question that’s been asked long before the Maple Leafs entered crisis mode and decided to eat the final three-plus seasons on Babcock’s contract: Is it Hutchinson that can’t win a game, or are the Leafs failing to give Hutchinson that chance?

Analyzing this one in a vacuum, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the Leafs simply failed their backup netminder. Hutchinson made a number of key saves in the lead-up to Buffalo eventually breaking the dam, and 36 shots and 27 scoring chances in total from Buffalo is a lot for any goaltender to handle.

But we are beyond the point of offering Hutchinson the benefit of the doubt. Allowing five, four, four, five, five, and five goals in his six starts this season, the loss in Buffalo was just another reason to believe that Hutchinson just can’t do the job.

Buffalo Sabres forward Jimmy Vesey (13) puts the puck past Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Michael Hutchinson (30). (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
Buffalo Sabres forward Jimmy Vesey (13) puts the puck past Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Michael Hutchinson (30). (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Seventh defenceman

Under Keefe, the primary mandate should mostly come naturally for the key components on the roster. The Leafs already boast the skill and creativity that the coach and management is looking to unlock. The challenge now is to make the correct reads from a defensive standpoint so that the emphasis on offence won’t cost them.

With three wins from as many games entering the contest, it hadn’t been a significant detriment up to this point. But even before the difficulties in Buffalo, it was clear that there were some systematic elements that needed to be ironed out before the Maple Leafs hit full stride. There have been many examples of the Leafs processing information or thinking about their responsibilities, and we’ve seen it from pretty much everyone in the lineup.

While we can’t exclude Ilya Mikheyev from this, in a comparative sense the rookie sure seems to have things down pat.

Mikheyev’s readiness to drop back and perform the defensive functions often required from Keefe through four games has been his primary means of helping unlock the Leafs’ attack. There have been so many examples of Mikheyev slipping back to work the blue line as to promote ventures deep into the offensive zone from the talented group of defenders at Keefe’s disposal. Mikheyev’s work at the top of the umbrella before Tavares’ goal versus the Red Wings on Wednesday immediately comes to mind.

We saw another example of Mikheyev’s diligence promoting an attack with Toronto’s first goal in Buffalo — this time beginning in the neutral zone.

Keep an eye on No. 65 throughout the sequence.

As Zach Hyman fights his natural inclination to dump the puck deep, Mikheyev helps him retain possession by sending the puck back to Morgan Rielly in neutral ice. Then, as Rielly waits for the Leafs to complete their change, Mikheyev skates straight over the puck carrier and, with an exchange of passes, he sends Rielly into the offensive zone with speed while swooping in behind to fill the position vacated by the blueliner.

Rewarded for his work in the neutral zone and support of the puck carrier, Reilly’s centering pass is poked into the path of the trailing Mikheyev, and he finds Tavares wide open for the opening goal.

For the most part, Mikheyev was performing a relatively simplified function under Babcock. He would skate fast in straight lines, forecheck, kill penalties. Now his game seems far more diverse, and as a first-year player learning English along with the new systems, his quick study is particularly impressive.

About those skills

With so much talk about the Maple Leafs’ new practice tactics this week and particularly the emphasis on skills work, the reality of it seems to become a little distorted, or at least exaggerated. Broken telephone stuff.

So to clear up a few things: Keefe is not pumping music through the speakers at Ford Performance Centre while discussing the power-play minutiae, and he is not setting up obstacle courses for the Leafs to stickhandle through like it’s the middle of summer.

Instead, the certain basics that can be incorporated into game situations are being fine-tuned in practice. And the situation Dmytro Timashov found himself in versus Buffalo was the perfect example.

Timashov was working away in the offensive zone with two skills coaches before practice Monday, one of which was former Leaf Nik Antropov. Over and over again, Antropov was simulating offensive-zone looks with passes across to Timashov, who was charged with quickly letting shots go from the left side of the high-danger zone, in and around the high slot.

Or, literally from the exact spot he scored from versus Buffalo.

This is the important stuff Keefe has built into his practices. Not the music.

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