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Photo Credit: Christian Bonin

What Sheldon Keefe Can Bring as Maple Leafs Head Coach

Mike Babcock is out. Sheldon Keefe is in. Things move fast in this wacky world we call hockey. Try to keep up.

The aftermath of Babcock’s dismissal will be filled mostly with eulogies, the majority of which seek to tie a neat little bow around his tenure in Toronto. And that’s entirely warranted. Babcock led the Leafs out of what was perhaps the most cavernous hole in franchise history upon taking over in 2015 and turned them into a perennial 100-point outfit. That can never be taken away from him.

But times change. And when Babcock didn’t, the other shoe was bound to drop.

Sheldon Keefe is the man of the hour now. And after biding his time in the Leafs organization for nearly the past half-decade, the former Marlies bench boss holds the opportunity to put his definitive stamp on an NHL roster.

Which begs the question: What does that look like?

In covering the Marlies for the past three years, I’ve been able to observe a number of Keefe’s coaching habits applied within a system largely reflective of the level above. Here are a few aspects I foresee him bringing to a Leafs roster that, at the moment, could use just about anything.

Willingness to Experiment

Sheldon Keefe hates being stagnant. When something clearly isn’t working, his preference is to switch things up in search of a different (read: better) result — even if doing so means venturing well outside the proverbial box.

Pierre Engvall is a prime example of this.

Around mid-February of last season, the Marlies were absolutely devastated by injuries, reeling from a six-day period in which they lost their top two centres, Chris Mueller and Sam Gagner, to a hamstring ailment and a trade, respectively.

Where does a coach go from there? Some would head straight to their GM’s office and barter for outside reinforcements. Others would request call-ups from whichever minor league affiliate was at their disposal and try to make them work.

Keefe, on the other hand, saw an opportunity.

Recognizing the speed and reach Engvall brought could potentially translate to centre, Keefe made the choice to shift the lanky Swede down the middle, all to essentially see what he had. Turns out, he had a lot.

Engvall flourished at centre, a position he himself admitted to not having played since the age of 10. In Engvall’s 18 games as a pivot, stretching from mid-February through to the end of the season, he chipped in 11 points all while sparking offensive resurgences from his two most common linemates, Dmytro Timashov and Michael Carcone.

Timashov put up 14 points alongside Engvall; Carcone 15.

The importance of this is illustrated best on a macro level. By simply trying something different — something largely unconventional and yet, startlingly, backed by logic — Keefe not only succeeded in saving his season and bridging a glaring roster hole, but he also gave the Maple Leafs an intriguing new prospect at one of their most dire positions of need.

Not every Keefe experiment produces Engvall-level success. Plenty have gone nowhere (Jordan Subban as PP quarterback comes to mind). But that’s not really the point.

Keefe is willing to try. And given that he’ll now be tinkering with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in lieu of minor league reclamation projects, the sky’s the limit.

Exposure Therapy

Contrary to popular belief, coaching in the American League does have its benefits — most of which boil down to outside scrutiny.

The shadow of your NHL parent club, particularly in a market like Toronto, can often act as a buffer, shielding you from the day-to-day heat felt at the level above. AHL line rushes can be tweeted out without fervour; scratches can be swept under the rug. And, as we touched upon above, experiments can be conducted without the threat of death by think piece.

Keefe has certainly benefited from the relative anonymity afforded to him by the Marlies. But that buffer is now gone, and I wonder if the increased spotlight will sway some of his more aggressive tendencies.

Namely, Keefe likes to test his players. Sensing an opportunity for growth, his approach can at times reflect that of the dad whose idea of swimming lessons is tossing his kid into the deep end, forcing them to fend for their life in the hope that they’ll exit the pool a better swimmer than when they (involuntarily) entered it.

Keefe’s trials by fire can last one period, one game, one week, even longer. Some become permanent; others are merely a means to an end. That’s the beauty of it, though; circumstances factor in.

I’ll give you an example of the latter.

The 2017-18 regular season was not kind to Adam Brooks. Facing grown men for the first time in his young career, the kid they call Prarie Jesus went without a goal until New Year’s Eve, and, deep into the schedule’s later months, was barely keeping his head above water in the AHL’s pool.

Something clearly needed to be done, and Keefe faced two options: keep Brooks relegated to the fourth-line and wait for a miraculous breakthrough or, well, not that.

He chose the latter.

Prior to a meeting with the Manitoba Moose on March 30th, 2018, Brooks was unexpectedly bumped up to the first line alongside veteran point-getters, Chris Mueller and Ben Smith. The click was instant. Thrown into the deep end against a formidable opponent, Brooks’ two-point effort played an integral part in the Marlies’ 3-2 victory, proving, at least to him, that he belonged at that level.

This top-line stint was a temporary one — Brooks returned to normal duty the following game — but the momentum he built that night carried well into the playoffs and laid the foundation for the revered Marchment-Moore-Brooks fourth line that helped guide those Marlies to a Calder Cup.

When you get opportunities like that, opportunities to play in different roles, your confidence grows,” Brooks told me shortly after his one-game lineup bump.

Now you have that locked in and wherever you play in the lineup, you’ll be ready to go.”

The Leafs seem to have their fair share of 2017-18 Era Adam Brookses right now. Most of their young core aches for a challenge, and, for better or worse, Keefe could be the one to give it to them.

Communication

Keefe wasn’t always the “players coach” his reputation touts him as today. Similar to the players he guides, Keefe’s NHL ascent required growth. The open-door policy put in place to bridge himself and his roster came gradually over time and was cultivated by Keefe’s inherent willingness to evolve — both as a tactician and as a leader.

By all accounts, Keefe still isn’t perfect. No coach is.

For one, the list of players who have experienced the Josh Leivo treatment under Keefe — Michael Paliotta, Morgan Klimchuk, Ryan Johnston, Adam Cracknell, to name a few — might not carry the flash that Babcock’s did, but it still exists. And while the unique circumstances of the AHL — threat of call-ups, three-in-threes, uncapped rosters, etc — foster natural cases of press box purgatory, painting Keefe as the anti-Babcock in this area would be simply untrue.

The key difference, though, is communication.

Keefe’s “Josh Leivos” are actually told why they are “Josh Leivos”. That aforementioned open-door policy applies to all players, those both in the lineup and outside of it. These are professionals, after all. Their livelihoods are at stake, and the worst thing a coach can do at that moment is leave their player twisting in the wind.

Keefe makes an effort to prevent that from happening. And regardless of how said player feels about their current role, being treated with a sense of transparency means something. It may not foster pleasant emotions — no one takes a healthy scratch with a smile — but it tends to defuse resentment, too.

What Keefe’s openness ultimately creates is a culture built on tangible accountability. Everyone knows where they stand, and, throughout the many levels of the organization, expectations are clearly set for each individual. But the process doesn’t stop there. Those expectations require results. And when they don’t come, players can expect Keefe to follow-up.

Using another Brooks-centric example, the young centre’s first two games of the Marlies’ opening-round series with the Rochester Americans last season left much to be desired. Brooks had more to give, and Keefe knew it. So, ahead of game three, Keefe called Brooks into his office for a sit-down — an honest discussion between player and coach.

The Marlies went on to sweep the series the following night with a 3-1 victory. Brooks scored all three goals.

“He [Brooks] had a very calm…calm but focused approach when I spoke with him,” Keefe told reporters post-game.

“I think he knew he needed to be better and he wanted to be better. And when I left my discussion with him, it was pretty remarkable, frankly. I’ve never really seen him like that; the level of focus that he had.” 

It’s one thing to hold players accountable for the performance. It’s another to credit them when that accountability is rewarded. Keefe understands this, appearing to recognize how intrinsic it is to reaching hockey’s new generation of player, a group currently littered throughout the Leafs’ roster.

Brooks said it best himself: “With the amount of ice time I got, and the situations Keefer has put me in over the last two years, you’re able to develop confidence, especially when you’re playing for a coach like that,” 

“So, it’s a lot of fun”

Fun is a word the Leafs could probably stand to hear more these days.

Familiarity

Given the midseason nature of Keefe’s appointment, this aspect is arguably the most important.

With any coaching change comes a feeling-out process, held between the roster and its newly-appointed figurehead, which naturally leads to a number of questions.

What does the new coach like? What does he hate? How do I get on his good side? When is the best time to approach him about an issue?

In the chaos of transition, those questions don’t have immediate answers, only discoverable over time.

But these Leafs don’t have the luxury of time. They need results and they need them now. In that case, it’s probably a good thing that 13 of the 23 players on Toronto’s active roster have played under Keefe in the past. Seven of them were a part of the Marlies squad that captured the Calder Cup in 2018. Three were Marlies this year.

Frankly, for over 50% of the team, swapping out Babcock for Keefe is barely a transition at all, with a good chunk likely even viewing it as a return to their normal.

Keefe was Pierre Engvall’s coach last weekend, for Pete’s sake. This learning curve isn’t perilously steep.

From a relationship standpoint, what this familiarity does is put every player in a position to succeed right away. There are no ambiguities here. If Tyson Barrie, for instance, wants to know how to avoid another Babcock-ian shunning, all he needs to do is turn to Travis Dermott, who happens to be his defence partner, and ask.

It’s that simple. And after last night’s announcement, you better believe those conversations were being had by just about every active Leaf.

It goes both ways, too. If Keefe wants to know how to best reach new subjects like Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner, he can simply go to one of his former disciples for the Cole’s Notes version and fill in the blanks from there.

The transition won’t be entirely seamless; Babcock is all some of these players have ever known at the NHL level. But for a midseason coaching change, Keefe seems to strike a balance of stability and change that this Leafs team desperately needs.