Yesterday, there was a bit of hubbub about the Leafs’ new practice style under Sheldon Keefe. It’s his first real opportunity to get a full practice session as the newest head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. His time has been limited thus far because of coming on board during a busy part of the schedule, as per Mark Masters:
Leafs will start practice with 20 minutes of skills work
Keefe's only spent about 70 mins on the ice with the team so far (Thursday skate, Friday practice) so today's his first real, full session
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) November 25, 2019
One of a few peculiarities was the astonishing number of coaches that the Leafs brought in to lead this training session. One of those was former-Leaf Nik Antropov as mentioned by Paul Hendrick:
Sheldon Keefe’s 1st home practice is on the Marlies sheet and includes development coaches totalling 8 including Nik Antropov. Rielly took part in the early part of the skate then left. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/ksfFwM7rvB
— Paul Hendrick (@HennyTweets) November 25, 2019
The practice took place at the Marlies facility, for reasons not apparent to me other than Keefe’s own familiarity with the place. While not noted above, it was mentioned that a second sheet of ice being used to facilitate some other training, but I wasn’t able to find any information about the details of that.
Antropov wasn’t the only note-worthy attendee at this practice. Another prestigious name at the helm of this session was Darryl Belfry, who may be the most prominent skills coach in hockey. He works with elite skilled talents like Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane, and Charlie McAvoy. His training style is quite unique, and lends itself to a practice style that is equally unique. You can learn more about him by listening to an episode of The Full 60 With Craig Custance podcast (now locked behind a paywall, so I can’t link to the episode — sorry).
Belfry was video’d working with Marner as shared below by Kristen Shilton:
Mitch Marner said he’d use this forced time away to work on his shot. Doing a lot of that with skills coach Darryl Belfry this morning pic.twitter.com/xVfM34Aplr
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) November 25, 2019
While this practice style may be unusual for most fans and members of the hockey media, it was not unusual to Justin Bourne, who previously worked with Sheldon Keefe on the Toronto Marlies as a video assistant coach. It was apparently the norm to practice this way when a significant break in the schedule was ahead. Also, Hendrick mentions 8 coaches, while Kristen Shilton says there were 9.
Can expect this regularly when the Leafs have more than a single practice day at home between games. https://t.co/fpuIBxIaYN
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) November 25, 2019
The other notable attendee, while not a coach, was Kyle Dubas. Yahoo Sports Canada caught Dubas filming parts of the practice. Maybe to share with others or perhaps just for his own private video watching material.
Kyle Dubas out here filming the skills session of Keefe’s first full practice as head coach like a proud Dad 😂 pic.twitter.com/pMEBBesDu2
— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) November 25, 2019
When asked to comment on the seemingly peculiar goings-on, Keefe had this to say:
Keefe: "I've had a lot of success with the Marlies in utilizing the resources that we have around us, in particular, the player development staff. They do a terrific job. They know what my expectations are in terms of working the skills within the structure …"
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) November 26, 2019
The fact that this practice focused on skill seems to be a perfect strategy for this team. Maximizing your strengths is just as important, if not more important, than filling in your weaknesses. If this team can get back to their utter dominance at the skilled aspects of the game, they won’t have to worry as much about the other aspects of the game.
While obviously things change during the playoffs, I’m completely certain that Keefe and the management team are aware of this and will factor that into future sessions. However, with the team currently outside of a playoff position, the focus has to be on the now and getting back to how they were winning before: pure skill and efficiency.
The early returns on the switch from Babcock to Keefe have been staggering, but it’s all incredibly early. This is yet another encouraging sign, though, and the impact that Keefe’s focus on skill could have on this team may carry them further than Babcock ever did, or could.