Why Sheldon Keefe is the Most Important Piece of the Leafs’ Developmental Program

The fact that Kyle Dubas was able to get Sheldon Keefe to sign on for another two seasons as the head coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies is a massive, albeit rather unheralded, win for the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.

Having compiled a 189-87-28 record (.667 point percentage) and a Calder Cup over the last four seasons at the helm of the Leafs’ AHL affiliate, there’s no doubt that Keefe could have bolted for an NHL gig if he so pleased.

“He’s one of the best up-and-coming coaches in the American Hockey League,” Marlies general manager Laurence Gilman told reporters at the teams’ locker clean out.

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Typically, coaches of Keefe’s ilk don’t tread in the minors for too long after they accomplish so much at that level. But in Keefe’s case, there’s plenty of reason to stay put – such as his relationship with Dubas, the resources that the Marlies have and the fact that the 37-year-old doesn’t have to uproot his young family from the Toronto-area just yet – and it doesn’t hurt that his salary is reportedly one of the highest in AHL history.

The Leafs organization couldn’t be more thrilled that the stars aligned for Keefe to remain in what he describes as “the best job outside of the NHL.”

“It’s the best thing for the development of our young players and [it’s going to] move this organization forward,” Gilman continued.

The Leafs have no shortage of intelligent hockey-minds working with their prospects – such as Scott Pellerin, Stephane Robidas and Haley Wickenheiser, to name a few – but there’s a case to be made that it’s Keefe who has made the most profound impact on the organization’s youngsters.

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“The Marlies always have a lot of players on their roster at once and I thought Keefer did a good job with handling guys, in particular,” one AHL forward, who previously played for Keefe’s Marlies, told The Leafs Nation. 

“You don’t obviously hear what he’s saying with guys, but he’s always chatting with [players] 1-on-1.”

With Keefe graduating nine players on the Leafs’ roster to the NHL, his track record speaks for himself.

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But what is it about Sheldon Keefe that makes him so unique? What is it about his approach to development that separates him from the pack?

Keefe Gives His Young Players Every Opportunity to Succeed

A prospect’s first season in the AHL is a massive adjustment.

“In the beginning, you’re not as confident,” said 19-year-old defenceman Rasmus Sandin back in March.

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“You’re a little bit [more] shy I guess when you don’t take that big of [a] role on the team at first and aren’t that old.”

Every player that makes it to the AHL has skill, but not everyone can make it to the big leagues just off that alone. Most of the players entering their first professional season are coming off a career in junior or college in which they were one of, if not the top guy on their team. There are plenty of wrinkles that need to be ironed out of a prospect’s game – whether it’s their attention to committing to playing a 200-foot game, their conditioning or even the mental hurdles that come with playing professional hockey.

Keefe has patience for young-guns and he’s known to be very diligent in his handling of them.

“He’s very detailed but allows guys to make mistakes and learn,” one of Keefe’s former players, currently treading in the NHL, told The Leafs Nation via text.

If Keefe believes in someone’s skill set, he’ll give them every opportunity to succeed. Whether that means pairing prospects with established veterans to give them a boost or giving youngsters big-time minutes as a testing ground, Keefe is always striving to put his players in situations where they can develop confidence first and foremost, rather than nitpicking and watering down a player’s game.

Keefe makes a point to connect with players in his meetings with them. He doesn’t just rush through a quickly prepared power point presentation with players, nor does he harp on guys too hard just to get under their skin. He’ll show the good and the bad and he always welcomes the dialogue that comes with it.

“Those meetings we have, I haven’t really had too many of those before,” Sandin said.

How Keefe deployed Sandin and Timothy Liljegren –  the organizations two most recent first-round draft picks – in their teenaged AHL seasons is something worth noting.

When Lilljegren joined the Marlies in the fall of 2017, the 18-year-old defenceman was part of a stacked blueline that ultimately was one of the driving forces of the teams’ Calder Cup Championship run that season. It was clear he needed some seasoning and Keefe sheltered Liljegren in his early days as he didn’t want to overwhelm him with too much responsibility.

He even gave him some time on the odd-man advantage too.

Sandin was expected to be sheltered as well this past season. But once he stepped on the ice for the Marlies, it was evident that he was a special player. Keefe didn’t hold Sandin back, instead giving him every opportunity to develop into a top pairing defenceman for the Leafs’ AHL affiliate, which he ultimately did.

In February of this past season, when the injury bug decimated the Marlies’ blue-line, Keefe instilled plenty of trust in his two young Swedes, placing the two on the teams’ top pairing. Keefe emphasized to the two just how much they were going to be relied on, but he also ensured them that he wanted them to do what they do best and be creative with the puck and creative offence.

Sandin and Liljegren would go on to help lead the Marlies’ blue-line through a resilient playoff that saw the Marlies fall two games short of reaching the Calder Cup Final for the second year in a row.

Trevor Moore and Jeremy Bracco are two more players who Keefe has played a big role in developing.

It was January of 2018 and with the Marlies losing key personnel, the Marlies needed someone to step up to the plate. Keefe believed in Moore and told him exactly that. He gave him time on the penalty kill to carve out a niche,  and on the power play so that he could have more time with the puck. Keefe worked closely with Moore on developing his offensive game, as his skillset – which revolves around his slick stick skills and quick feet – was a great foundation of an offensive force.

“He teaches the offensive part of the game which a lot of coaches don’t,” said the NHL player previously coached by Keefe.

“I think a lot of coaches are of the mind that offence is something that can’t be taught, like you either have it or you don’t.”

In the second half of the 2017-2018 season, Moore’s offensive output skyrocketed to 0.70 points-per-game, a far contrast from the 0.22 pace he was scoring at during the first half of the season, followed then by a monstrous Calder Cup performance soon after (17 points in 20 games).

When Bracco and Keefe embraced on the ice after the team won Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals – a game in which Bracco did not suit up for – Keefe told Bracco that the Marlies would be “his team” next year. From the get-go of the 2018-2019 season, Bracco was given ample opportunity to flourish.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing at first, with nine points in his first 18 games, but Keefe continued to give Bracco the chance. He knew the offence would come, and it eventually did, with Bracco finishing the 2018-2019 season with the second most points in the entire league (79).

Keefe Strays Away From Developmental Norms

Keefe leaves no stone unturned when it comes to developing.

A forward thinker with an analytical approach, he is always looking at ways in which he can further refine the skillsets of his prospects, and does so in non-conventional ways.

Take Pierre Engvall’s transition to centre, for example.

Long before the Marlies first put Engvall down the middle after Chris Mueller was lost to injury in February, Keefe had been mulling the idea of shifting the 6’5 winger into the centre position. The Marlies play a system in which they are reliant on high-event hockey through the middle of the ice and although Engvall hadn’t played centre since the age of nine, his combination of size, speed and puck control fit the bill of the type of player that Keefe likes to put down the middle.

Furthermore, with the Leafs’ centre depth being rather thin, it made a lot of sense to try someone out at centre, as well. Fast forward a couple months from Engvall’s first game at centre and it appears as if there is a real possibility that the 23-year-old forward could be taking draws for the Leafs in the not-so distant future. Keefe’s outside-the-box thinking deserves full credit for this.

Or take the development plan that Keefe set out for Travis Dermott for the first half of the 2017-2018 season, as another example.

Following a rookie season in which Dermott displayed some promise on the man-advantage, Keefe challenged Dermott to be the team’s best defender and, in order to accomplish this, stripped him of his power play duties to allocate more of his time towards matchups against opponents top lines.

The premise was, if Dermott could be effective in shutting down the opposition, all-the-while being effective on breakouts and zone entries, he’d be NHL bound much quicker. And that’s exactly what happened, as Dermott was recalled by the Maple Leafs in the winter of 2018 and since then (aside from returning to the Marlies for the Calder Cup playoff run) he’s been in the NHL ever since.

He’s Created a Standard of Winning

For the Marlies, winning and development go hand-in-hand.

The Leafs organization certainly deserves credit for some of the Marlies’ success, given the investments they’ve made to surround their young nucleus with top-notch veteran players and state-of-the art facilities. But while you can lead a horse to water, you cannot make it drink. Keefe has taken advantage of all the resources at his disposal, along with his own skill set, which has allowed him to execute in the postseason while developing prospects, as well.

Coming so close to a finals repeat this past season was surely a product of the experiences garnered from the year prior. And that starts with the culture Keefe has created with the Marlies.

Luckily for the Leafs, Keefe will be working with their prospects just as closely for another two seasons.

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