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Leafs maintain development focus with Keefe hire

by David Alter / Toronto Maple Leafs

Less than three weeks ago, Leafs Assistant GM Kyle Dubas elected to change the Marlies coaching staff. Out were the existing crew led by Gord Dineen.

On Monday, his successor was introduced in Sheldon Keefe, a man who Dubas is very familiar with, both having worked together in the OHL with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

The reason for the change had nothing to do with the Marlies season, a year in which they had a very good end to a regular season to grab a playoff spot, only to fall to Grand Rapids in the first round. As has been the case with many of the personnel changes in the past year, this had everything to do with player development.

“For me, Sheldon’s ability to maximize the potential of the players there in Sault Ste. Marie, the number of players they had drafted, the number they had signed, the way they had played, we talked about who would be the best guy to groom the players to play for Mike (Babcock) and it was clear to me that this is who everyone was most comfortable with so we moved ahead,” said Dubas.

Keefe’s tenure with the OHL’s Greyhounds was successful. Dubas, then-GM of the Greyhounds, hired Keefe to be his Head Coach in December of 2012. The turnaround saw Keefe compile a record of 121-41-3-10 record in just under three seasons with the team. Last year was the most exceptional with Sault Ste. Marie posting a league-best 54-12-0-2 regular season record, in which Keefe was rewarded with OHL and CHL coach of the year honours.

The particular brand of possession hockey is what Keefe preached during his time in the Soo. It’s the same philosophy that made this new opportunity a no-brainer for all involved. While this will be a time of transition for Keefe as well as the players, the recipe that made Keefe so successful in the OHL will be used in Toronto.

“I’ve had a lot of experience in dealing with the type of player that’s making this transition that I’m making as a coach,” Keefe said. “I’m not expecting to change a lot but at the same time I’m prepared to adapt and recognize the need to approach things differently when you’ve got players that have different circumstances and different issues on a day-to-day basis. In terms of my approach as a coach, I’m not planning on changing too much but I’ll be ready to adapt if necessary.”

Keefe will play a vital role for how new Leafs Head Coach Mike Babcock puts together his team on a regular basis. When players go down due to injury, the constant communication between the two will allow for the right player to be called up so that everyone is in a position to succeed.

“I think it’s going to be a great relationship in terms of learning and sharing,” said Dubas. “We want to be able to have Mike call Sheldon daily or multiple times daily or him sit in and be able to say to Sheldon, ‘Here’s what I need to be able to see from this player’ and then go from there. But I think that’s a relationship that evolves.”

Keefe will get a chance to evaluate much of the talent in early July, when he will run his first Leafs rookie camp. That will set the tone for yet another stage of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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