When Sheldon Keefe took the reins for the Maple Leafs as head coach at the organization’s rookie tournament in London, Ont., last fall, he himself was a rookie – at least, in terms of working for the franchise. But he’s back this year with a great deal of success under his belt – a record-setting season as bench boss of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies will do that for a head coach’s resume – and Keefe sees things unfolding very similarly in London with a new crop of young talent.
“I think it will be very similar as it was to last year,” Keefe told MapleLeafs.com prior to the rookie tournament, which kicks off Friday night and extends through Sunday. “I don’t think I need to adjust anything or deal with anything differently. There’s a lot of different things in place within the organization to help players, and my job is to focus on their development, and lots of other people help keep the players focused on what they need to focus on.
“The experience didn’t seem to be much of a problem last year, having some young players we had throughout the season, with the Marlies and the rookie tournament. The organization is aware of what it’s like to be a Maple Leaf, and they do a really nice job to prepare the players for it.”
The Leafs have invited 31 players to participate in the four-team tournament, which includes prospects from the Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators organizations. Some of Toronto’s players – 2016 draft picks Jack Walker and Keaton Middleton, for example – will be taking part in their first rookie tourney, while others – including London Knights star forward Mitch Marner and defensemen Andrew Nielsen and Travis Dermott – are back for a second go-round. In addition, 21-year-old centre Frederik Gauthier, who played for Keefe all season with the Marlies, will skate in his fourth rookie tournament. And Keefe will be looking to veterans of the process to help the first-timers acclimate to what can be a pressure-packed environment in which everyone is attempting to make an impact in front of Leafs management.
“Once the group comes together, there’s a number of players who’ve played in this event last year, if not for the Marlies the entire year, and they know what to expect – the structure and the system, things like that,” Keefe said. “So you’re looking for leadership to come from those people in terms of how to conduct yourself on and off the ice, and you look at guys like Gauthier and (defensemen Rinat) Valiev and Justin Holl, and (forwards Tobias) Lindberg and Colin Smith, who played for us last year. All the guys who’ve been with the organization, you’re looking for them to show development with their leadership – not just the on-ice skills, but the leadership as well.
“That’s one of the things that comes with being able to take another crack at this event: to show the maturation in yourself as a person.”
All Leafs players in attendance will be working with Keefe, as well as development team members including director of player development Scott Pellerin, player development consultant Darryl Belfry and skating development consultant Barb Underhill, to grow their games. And Keefe aims to infuse the youngsters with a vivid understanding of what it means to play for a franchise that demands preparedness and drive every time they set foot on the ice.
In his first season with the Marlies – who he guided to an AHL-best regular season record and a trip to the conference final – he believes that message was delivered, and the results should go a long ways toward persuading this year’s crop of rookies that following the process will lead to positive results for them, regardless of where they wind up playing the 2016-17 regular season.
“The one thing we really wanted to come out of last season was for young players who play with us to have the expectation that you prepare to win and compete to win every night, and then you have a chance to win every night,” Keefe said. “We wanted to manufacture that feeling for young players and I feel we did that and our players fed off of that, so I think it was a successful year in many regards. That will help us in terms of the Marlies this season, and it puts us in a better place than where we were. It was a unique opportunity for us with the Marlies last year, but that was certainly a focus – to make it clear to young players what it feels like to be with a team that has a chance to win every night.”
Keefe and Toronto’s youngsters will do battle in the rookie tournament before a throng of Leafs fans, and the passion of Leafs Nation never fails to give Keefe an added boost when it comes to doing his job. The team’s development camp in Niagara Falls in July was packed with fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the team’s future, and the turnout in London should be no different. And though he’s become accustomed to the support, Keefe is always grateful for it.
“I’ve definitely gotten used to it, but it definitely is still a great feeling,” Keefe said. “I don’t want to say I’m surprised by it because you see such a long tradition of it – but the fact you see the support traveling around the different communities, it’s pretty special, and it’s not lost on me. Being with the Marlies or the rookie tournament or the development camp, to feel a part of it, it’s part of what inspires you to get up every day and look to make an impact on the players and the organization.”