Maple Leafs’ Sheldon Keefe is summoning his inner Tortorella more and more

The Toronto Maple Leafs were in Philadelphia last week when John Tortorella did a very John Tortorella thing: He scratched his captain Sean Couturier.

“Obviously something like scratching their captain,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe that morning, “those kind of things get your team’s attention.”

You wonder if it got Keefe’s attention, too.

One week later, Keefe blasted his team, and his captain in particular, after a 6-3 loss to New Jersey, calling John Tavares out by name in unprecedented fashion. “He himself got carried away tonight,” Keefe said of Tavares. “That’s our captain. So if that’s going to happen, well, the rest of our bench is making it up as we go.”

What exactly may have enraged Keefe?

At times, the Leafs captain didn’t prioritize defence or take care of the puck.

You can see it here midway through the third period when Tavares, the apparent high man in the offensive zone, halfheartedly gets back to defend — which springs an odd-man rush for the Devils.

A short while later, Tavares threw a blind pass into the middle that gave the Devils numbers heading the other way.

Tavares and Auston Matthews may have been the most egregious offenders all night in the puck management department, which seemed to have a contagious effect on the rest of the group.

With about four minutes left in the second period, Matthews turned the puck over at the Devils blue line. Just over 30 seconds later, Matthew Knies tried to worm his way around Timo Meier in the neutral zone — and turned it over.

Later, Max Domi handed the Devils the 5-3 clincher when he threw the puck away just inside the offensive blue line.

“They’ve got to be the example,” Keefe said of leaders like Tavares and Matthews.

Keefe played 125 games in the NHL, most of them for Tortorella in Tampa. Perhaps he saw a tactic worth emulating, if to a lesser degree, from his former coach. That is, make an example of the captain to get the team’s attention with the playoffs just around the corner.

Keefe had already voiced his displeasure with some recent slippage.

Hours before the game against New Jersey, he was still disturbed by how his team played against the Flyers on the night Couturier was loudly scratched. “Let’s not have any slips like we did in Philadelphia,” Keefe said on Tuesday morning.

The Leafs coach warned his team about New Jersey’s “high-octane” offence and stressed urgency.

“We haven’t clinched anything,” he said. “Nothing is secure at this point in time. And we need to approach it that way. Every day, every shift, every practice we get, we need to have a level of urgency to everything that we’re doing here.”

Keefe’s willingness to more boldly make his players accountable stretches back before this week.

It started in earnest on Dec. 30 when Keefe made an example of David Kämpf by ending his lengthy consecutive games-played streak with the first healthy scratch of his Leafs career. Kämpf, maybe the team’s most responsible forward, had turned a puck over in the offensive zone that prompted Columbus’ game-tying goal a night previous.

Keefe explained he would no longer be permitting careless mistakes that make “life easier on your opponent.”

“The tolerance for the same types of mistakes that are happening,” Keefe said, “is going to be a lot less, and needs to be a lot less if we don’t see improvement.”

Kämpf was only a starting point. Soon, bigger fish were held accountable. Tavares was benched for likely the first time of his life against Colorado in mid-January. He and Tyler Bertuzzi were stapled to the bench for most of the third period.

Before the month was over, Keefe sat his No. 1 power-play unit for an entire second-period power play after they permitted a two-on-zero rush to the Winnipeg Jets.

“Obviously they make a mistake in that spot,” Keefe said that night. “It’s a chance for me to hold them accountable and get some other guys involved.”

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The Maple Leafs coach said he would no longer be permitting careless mistakes that make “life easier on your opponent.” (John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

Keefe also took the bold step soon after of removing Tavares from PP1 entirely while demoting him to third-line centre, another career first for the Leafs captain. His fiery Tortorella-like antics on the bench, meanwhile, earned him an ejection and a $25,000 fine in a late February game against Vegas.

It all speaks to a coach demanding even more of his team ahead of his fifth postseason in charge. There’s a lot at stake for the Leafs and for Keefe personally this spring. Keefe got a two-year contract extension from first-year general manager Brad Treliving last fall. But it’s not hard to envision a scenario that sees the Leafs changing head coaches if the team has another early playoff exit.

Keefe is clearly trying to set a tone now and clamp down on the kind of mistakes that could doom the Leafs later.

Time will tell whether this approach yields more positive returns when it really matters, but it’s hard to argue with the recent results, the loss to the Devils notwithstanding. Playing without Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner and Calle Järnkrok for extended periods, the Leafs are 18-8-1 in their last 27 games — the sixth-best record in the league.

(Top photo of Sheldon Keefe: Josh Lavallee / NHLI via Getty Images)

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