TORONTO– On December 3, 2012, just 29 games into the season, Kyle Dubas made a coaching change. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds general manager at the time, Dubas replaced then head coach Mike Stapleton with a young Sheldon Keefe.
Keefe was previously the head coach of the Pembroke Lumber Kings in the CCHL, a team he purchased back in 2003. A historical yet struggling franchise, Keefe would bring the team back into relevance, posting a 285–95–12 record.
Seven years later, Dubas once again elects to fire his head coach and bring in Keefe as a replacement. Only this time, the two men are a part of the illustrious Toronto Maple Leafs franchise. And the person being let go is Mike Babcock, a former Stanley Cup winner who signed an eight-year, $50 million contract.
Babcock was brought into the Leafs organization to rejuvenate the franchise. Now, it is Keefe’s job to pick up the pieces on a team struggling to find its identity 23 games into the season.
“Our game is not really meeting our expectations,” said Maple Leafs President of Hockey Operations Brendan Shanahan to reporters on Wednesday. “We’re mistake-prone on defence. The attention to details aren’t there. Even the explosive offence our team was known for has been missing for a while now.”
For the new Leafs coach, injecting a command of the locker room and holding players accountable will be his first daunting task. Over a quarter of the way through the season, the team has fallen short of its record-setting seasons the past two years. The Leafs have lost six consecutive games, with only two regulation wins in their last 16 contests. Special teams have been a growing concern, given the plethora of offensive weapons the Leafs possess. Currently, Toronto is ranked 18th on the power play (17.6%) and 27th on the penalty kill (73.1%).
Couple that with defensive giveaways and issues at backup goalie, and you have a Leafs team that is currently sitting two points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. In order for Keefe to gain respect and leadership amongst the Leafs players, it must start with establishing a constructive relationship with the four guys earning approximately $40 million in total salary.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisitl of the Edmonton Oilers have 31 goals combined to start the season. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Leafs captain John Tavares have combined for 32 goals. It is clear that the offensive zip this team prides itself on has not been present for the last two weeks.
It is no secret that Babcock was stubborn in his system and was not always in concert with what Dubas wanted the hockey team to look like. Whether it was playing minutes for the stars, pairing Morgan Reilly with Cody Ceci and not starting Jason Spezza, the contradictions between the Babcock and Dubas styles could not be more apparent. Now with Keefe at the head coach role, he will get to execute a philosophy that aligns with his general manager.
“We want to be very fast and we want the players to feel free when they’re on offense,” Dubas told reporters on Thursday.
When Keefe took over the Soo Greyhounds, he would take a reeling franchise and make them into a perennial OHL contender. In 2014-2015, Keefe would win the CHL Coach of the Year after leading the Greyhounds to an impressive 54-12-2 record. But it was his tenure with the Leafs AHL-affiliate Toronto Marlies where Keefe would make the most impact.
Keefe preached reliance on speed and skill to his Marlies players. But he was not afraid to get creative. When certain line combinations did not work, Keefe would experiment with in-game changes. And the 39-year-old would often get his defensemen more involved in the attacking zone. A reality that could be refreshing for newly acquired Leafs defenseman Tyson Barrie, who has a team-high 20 giveaways this season.
“Sheldon has taught me to relax while I play and be structured,” said Marlies defenseman Timothy Liljegren. “I gained a lot of confidence from him and as long as you play structured and creatively, you will thrive.”
As the head coach of the Marlies, Keefe recorded a 199-89-22-9 record and a .672 career points percentage, the highest in AHL history among head coaches with at least 200 games. Keefe’s Marlies teams would make three conference championship appearances and capture the franchise’s first Calder Cup in 2018.
It is clear that Keefe’s coaching persona inspired and galvanized his players to compete at a high level. Jeremy Bracco, who has 28 goals and 83 assists with the Marlies for his career, credits Keefe for making him focus on the details to improve his game.
“He groomed me and gave me a chance to blossom in this league,” said Bracco. “Sheldon is an honest guy and a player’s coach and I believe the Leaf players will respond well to that.”
A.J. MacLean would not have been as successful as an assistant coach if it weren’t for Keefe. Now, assuming the interim head coaching duties for the Marlies, MacLean demonstrated that he is eager to carry forward the legacy and culture Keefe developed.
Wednesday night’s 2-1 overtime Marlies victory over the Laval Rocket, was a hard-fought win that highlighted the speed and skill Keefe instilled into the second-best team in the AHL’s Eastern Conference.
“For me, Sheldon means everything to my career along with my Father and Kyle Dubas,” said MacLean. “The attention to every detail, whether it is our day to day, the travel and play on the ice. No stone was left unturned and that is the legacy he leaves with the Marlies.”
When Kyle Dubas, Brendan Shanahan, and Sheldon Keefe met with the media before Thursday’s game against the Coyotes, their message was united. Hiring Keefe was not just to address the short-term struggles but pave the way for a solid foundation in the long-term. Dubas did take responsibility that he did not “become sympatico” on various issues with Babcock. But was fervent in his belief that the players he has assembled will conquer this in-season adversity.
What happened on Wednesday was inevitable. It was expected that Dubas would put Keefe in the head coaching role of Toronto’s marquee franchise, just like he did for the Greyhounds and the Marlies.
The difference now is that the spotlight has never been brighter on Dubas. The roster Dubas has constructed is up against the cap, with very little wiggle room. Spending $40 million on four forwards, instead of divvying up the money to address the defensive and backup goalie issues, may haunt Dubas down the road if the team underperforms.
But if there is one person to risk your job and reputation on, it’s Sheldon Keefe. His quiet bravado, along with his innovative creativity, will look to shake up a team that needs structure and passion now more than ever. His familiarity with management and coaching five of the current Leaf players make Keefe a perfect fit to bring accolades and success to this franchise.
“We want to put a structure in place to give our players the confidence and freedom to capitalize when they have the puck,” said Keefe in his introductory press conference.
Make no mistake, the Keefe style of play will be on full display when the puck drops Thursday night in Phoenix on a new coaching era for the Toronto Maple Leafs.