In his second season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, head coach Sheldon Keefe has guided the team to an NHL-best 38 points through games completed on Mar. 8. His focus to play a better defensive game has resonated with his players as the team reaches the midway point of the season.
Forward Zach Hyman isn't surprised, given he had a preview of Keefe's coaching style when he played for the Toronto Marlies during the 2015-16 season.
"I think his greatest strength is his communication, his ability to talk to players based on who the player is," Hyman said of Keefe. "I think he understands what a player needs and, I guess, how to speak to that person and it may be different."
After five seasons with the Marlies that included a Calder Cup Championship in 2018, Keefe was promoted to the Toronto Maple Leafs to replace head coach Mike Babcock on Nov. 20, 2019. In his time with the Leafs, he has posted a record of 45-21-7 over two partial seasons.
On Tuesday, the Maple Leafs open a three-game set against the Winnipeg Jets, led by head coach Paul Maurice.
Like Keefe, Maurice started his NHL coaching career in his 30's and Toronto's bench boss has admired how the veteran coach had conducted himself over his 23 seasons in the league.
"I have great respect for him," Keefe said of Maurice, "First of all, the longevity he's had in the league and the success he's had, but also how he handles himself, for me as a guy before coaching in the NHL."
Maple Leafs defenseman Zach Bogosian played for both Keefe and Maurice. In a copycat league where styles can often be similar, there are unique twists that coaches will employ to put their stamp on a club.
"I think that has something to do with, maybe his age. He's younger on the coaching end of things," Bogosian said of Keefe. "He brings his work boots every day and makes sure we're feeding off that."
The North Division has seen a pair of coaching changes. The Montreal Canadiens dispatched Claude Julien on Feb. 24 and installed Dominique Ducharme as interim coach. The Calgary Flames fired Geoff Ward and replaced him with veteran coach Darryl Sutter on Mar. 4. With voices changing on a regular basis, the consistent message in the room for both the Jets and Leafs have served them well.
Both teams come into this week's three-game set with identical 7-3-0 records in their past ten games. With just one prior meeting between these teams (a 3-1 victory for Toronto on Jan. 18), The Jets could put a dent into Toronto's six-point lead in the North Division
Winnipeg is aided by the addition of forward Pierre-Luc Dubois, acquired in a trade with Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 23.
"No matter how they use him or who they play him with he's a lot to handle.", said Keefe
The Leafs got a close look at Dubois when he scored three goals and added an assist in a five-game qualifying-round series against the Blue Jackets last summer.
Dubois has four goals and two assists in nine games this season with the Jets.