The news was not entirely unexpected, but the future is now in Toronto, where Sheldon Keefe has replaced Mike Babcock as coach of the Maple Leafs. The spotlight will be searing on the 39-year-old, so who is Keefe? Talking to both friends and foes of the former AHL Marlies coach, he's a guy that players want to win with.
“I’m ecstatic for Keefer,” said Marlies right winger Jeremy Bracco. “He groomed me and gave me a chance to blossom in this league and I like to give a lot of credit for the things I’ve accomplished to him. He’s a guy you want to play for and you go through a wall for a guy like that. He’s honest, he’s got his players’ backs and he’s a lot of fun to be around at the rink.”
For the past four seasons, Keefe has been helming the Marlies and helped turn them into a force. Toronto won the Calder Cup championship in 2018 with a fast roster that included future Maple Leafs such as Andreas Johnsson (MVP of the playoffs), Travis Dermott, Frederik Gauthier, Trevor Moore, Dmytro Timashov and Pierre Engvall, not to mention Carl Grundstrom, who now plays for Los Angeles. The Marlies made the conference final again last year before falling to the eventual champs from Charlotte and this year, Toronto was once again one of the top teams in the league, sitting atop the North Division when Keefe left.
Replacing him temporarily are Marlies assistants A.J. MacLean and Rob Davison. MacLean did media duties after Wednesday night’s overtime win over Laval and was effusive in his praise for Keefe, whom he also worked with in Sault Ste. Marie with the OHL’s Greyhounds.
“For me personally, he means everything to my career,” MacLean said. “Along with my father and Kyle Dubas, they’re the people who groomed me to be what I am. Once I got done playing, they took a chance on me in the Soo and every step of the way he’s been an incredible mentor and basically a big brother to me through life and coaching.”
Keefe and Dubas – who has now been Keefe’s boss in the NHL, AHL and OHL – obviously have great history together and current Greyhounds GM Kyle Raftis (who worked with Keefe in his final year with the Hounds) sees kindred spirits in the Maple Leafs GM and his new bench boss.
“They see the game the same way,” Raftis said. “They speak the same language and there is a lot of trust between the two of them.”
Leafs fans will also like the idea of Keefe’s flexibility. While the coach obviously has his systems, Raftis noted that Keefe was great at making in-game adjustments and could adapt to different situations, depending on the opponent.
In an ideal world, Keefe’s strategies will unleash Toronto’s top-end stars.
“Sheldon likes to play fast,” said Marlies center Adam Brooks. “And with the skill they have up there, I think they’ll do great with him as coach.”
But don’t just take his friends’ word for it. I also asked a pro scout from another NHL team what he thought of Keefe and he loved the hire. He saw Keefe’s Marlies as a team where the defensemen could really push the puck forward and because of that, the scout anticipates that a player such as Tyson Barrie will really take a step forward under the new regime.
Puck possession will be important and that might even mean a step up for a player such as Timashov. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that the scout believed that Toronto’s stars – Auston Matthews and William Nylander, for example – will flourish under a new voice that won’t favor older players the way Babcock did. Babcock was also tough to play for and Keefe’s personality may help the stars, too. His Marlies saw that: Keefe keeps things light, while also getting the job done.
“You know where you stand,” Bracco said. “You know where you are in the lineup, you know what you need to do to contribute and he expects you to get better in the areas that you’re not so good at. He’s very easy to talk to – about life, not even hockey. He’s always been there, open-door policy, and I think they’ll appreciate that up there.”
MacLean has seen Keefe’s handiwork up front for years now and he sees a man who knows the key to success:
“Details,” he said. “He’s a very detailed guy; he demands it. He’s well-pronounced when he explains what he wants to see and every detail matters. No stone goes unturned.”
For a market that has been craving another Stanley Cup since 1967, that’s a good thing to hear.
“He genuinely cares about every player that has come through here,” MacLean said. “He puts the time and effort in to make sure each and every player has the opportunity to reach their maximum potential. The guys go through a wall for him here.”
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