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One-on-One with Sheldon Keefe

by Adam Proteau / Toronto Maple Leafs

Since the Maple Leafs hired him last June as head coach of their American League affiliate Marlies franchise, Sheldon Keefe has had his nose to the grindstone, working in concert with Marlies GM Kyle Dubas and Toronto’s entire management and development team to revitalize a farm system crucial to the NHL franchise’s future. In that regard, the 35-year-old has already experienced some tremendous successes: he and his coaching staff have sent 11 Marlies members up to the Leafs to make their NHL debuts – and at the same time, he’s kept his own squad more than competitive at the AHL level, leading that Marlies team to a staggering (and league-best) 44-14-5 record and coaching at the AHL All-Star Game.

Keefe took time out to speak with in mid-March to discuss his initial experiences in Toronto, what he’s learned from a coaching career that began at the Jr. A level and quickly took him to Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario League before the Marlies came calling, and the challenges ahead as the organization prepares for a playoff run. When you first took the job, when did the scope of it settle in for you in terms of what the challenge was?

Sheldon Keefe: I don't know if “challenge” is the right term. I’ve looked at it more as opportunity, and I think the scope of that really came in when you had the opportunity to sit in the room and talk to people once you're officially a part of it. My opportunities to talk with (Leafs head coach) Mike Babcock, and Kyle, and (Leafs president) Brendan Shanahan at the time before (Leafs GM) Lou (Lamoriello) had come on board – the opportunity to discuss the way the organization was moving, and with so much newness coming – for a new guy coming on board, you're excited about where things are going.

And just hearing from them about how important my role and the Marlies organization is to where the Leafs want to go, that really made me excited about the opportunity to lead that charge at this level. So I guess that's where the challenge comes in. Now we've got to get to work and this is serious stuff. And what we're doing with these young players, I don't take lightly for a second. But certainly, learning just how serious they were about what we're doing as an organization and what our role is and the fact that we were going to work so closely together between the Leafs and Marlies -- that really had me excited. So when you get to camp then and you see the collection of young talent – obviously, you worked with young kids all the in the Soo, but in terms of their experience versus other teams at the AHL level, did you feel right away you were going to have to be teaching more than you ever had before?

Sheldon Keefe: I think we had a pretty unique program in Sault Ste. Marie in terms of how we ran things and how we tried to really work to develop players on individual basis, so I felt comfortable with what I could bring and how we could put things together here. And I felt that even more so because of the staff that was in place and the resources that are in place at this level that aren’t necessarily available at the junior level. So I had a lot of ideas and a lot of things frankly that Kyle and I have talked at length about, even dating back to our time in the Soo, just about how we felt player development should be run.

Then you come in here, and you have (Marlies’) player development staff, led by (Leafs director of player development) Scott Pellerin, with (Leafs skating consultant) Barb Underhill, (Leafs player development consultant) Mike Ellis and (Leafs player development consultant) Darryl Belfry. To have them at our disposal as people who have skill sets unique from the rest of our staff who can offer things to our players that we either couldn't or that we have limited time available to do that in running the team, really allows us to connect with the players in different ways on a weekly or daily basis that can help them get better. That's a big part of what the guys need.

To be able to have those resources and then pair it with a group of young players that want to get better, want to play in the NHL, recognize they’re part of the plan, it was a really good match. Because every day you've got a broad staff that can cover a lot of areas, and you’ve got a very willing team of athletes who want to get better. It's a good fit from that end of it, but after saying all of that, even some of our older guys, guys that have already played in the NHL or who are still working to get there, they want to get better too. So you don't have anyone here who’s reluctant to what we're doing. It's been really good that way, and having to go through it we learned a lot, and I think we’ll be able to fine-tune things through the summer and come back at it next year and stay with it with the next crop. I was talking the other night with Brooks Laich about the evolution of coaching, and he mentioned coaches now talk to players about the "why" of what they're asking players to do. How has the coaching profession changed since you were a young player?

Sheldon Keefe: I don't know if the profession has changed. I think the athletes have changed, which in a lot of ways challenge and push the coaches to change in a lot of ways. So I do think there's more time taken now to explain things, and as a young player myself I don't think I was unique in that you're constantly unsure or insecure about your position.

You have a case now where younger players really don't accept the fact that they're not sure, so they'll come and they'll ask you, and you have to be prepared for an answer, or to really, really connect with them you need to meet those things before the questions even come, to keep them engaged and keep them onside. So I think that's just part of the information age. These players are educated, quicker and perhaps better than they ever have been, in many facets of life, and certainly what they're passionate about the most is not immune to that. When you map out the season, are you a coach that maps things out in blocks, in terms of where you want to be with the team, or are you more organic in responding as it unfolds?

Sheldon Keefe: We look at the season in blocks in terms of making a general plan or setting a foundation of what we're going to do, but I think it's really important to live in the day, live in the moment and in that day and then plan for the next day based on what's best for the players individually and the team collectively. I feel like you have to make plans for what's coming, but you have to be willing to adjust and adapt. So that's what we've done.

And in particular in my first year, I'm learning a lot as we go through this and getting a feel for things. I lean on (Marlies associate coach) Gord Dineen a great deal with his experience, but I wanted to make sure I left room for myself to be able to adjust and change in terms of our schedule, our routine and what we ask from the players. So that's what we've done and that's really not that different from what I've done in the past. I think you just take a day at a time and ask yourself what your players need at that particular moment. Sometimes what you feel they need at that moment is the same as what you felt a month or two prior, sometimes it's not, so you change it up. It felt like when the Leafs made a lot of changes at and leading up to the trade deadline, there was a learning window with the new guys who came up from your Marlies team. Is that constant learning curve and adjustment something you're dealing with all the time because of call-ups, injuries and the nature of the AHL level?

Sheldon Keefe: I don't think the learning ever stops and therefore that the teaching ever stops. It's interesting, because one of the things I have is I took a unique path to get here: a little over three years ago I was coaching at the Jr. A level, so I've been through different levels quickly. And having gone through that, I've learned that a lot of the problems stay the same. Even though the pro players are more advanced, their problems remain the same and your game can slip just the same, relatively speaking.

So the coaching and the teaching never stops right from Day One of training camp. It's all part of coaching, and I think you're always having to touch on things, even things we covered in October. When you don't stay on top of it - and you can't stay on top of everything; it's a very complex game and schedule limits your ability to do things - little things can creep up again a couple months later. But that's the reality that we deal with, and I don't think any level of the game is different in that regard. Even with the small degree of exposure I've had at the NHL level, those players need to be coached as well, and certainly Mike does an excellent job of staying on top of everything. Speaking of Mike - working with him closely now, what stands out for you in terms of the reality of Mike versus the perception you may have had of him coming in?

Sheldon Keefe: I don't know about perception or anything like that, but I do know he's tremendously welcoming, not just for me but for the entire staff. He shares information willingly, and that really speaks to the fact that he really values what the Marlies can bring to the Leafs. If he's not out at our games, he's doing his best to have a peek on video. And we talk regularly. Obviously Kyle is the great go-between with Lou, Brendan or Mike with what's happening here on the daily. But his willingness to work – you've got a first-year coach coming out of the junior level versus a guy that's at the top of his field – is such a great example.

Mike has been welcoming and has really helped me do my job in terms of understanding what he expects and knowing his language as best I can, and with me coming to the games when the schedule allows, it's a great opportunity for me to go sit in the room, listen to the things they're talking about and be a sponge. That’s him just telling me, you know, ‘Don't just come and show up and watch - come down and be immersed in it all’. So that has been invaluable and that transfers onto the players because I think my connection with Babs is symbolic to our players that what we're doing here matters. And it matters there, with the Leafs. That is one of the many benefits of having your minor-league affiliate in the same city, for sure. I know even when your team was at its best record-wise, you probably still weren't satisfied as a coach and recognized areas in which you could improve. But as you head toward the playoffs in these final few weeks of the regular season, what is your primary focus at this stage?

Sheldon Keefe: Our primary focus at this stage is to deal with adversity well, and in a positive manner that makes us better, because it's inevitable in the playoffs that we're going to have to deal with that. It's one of the things we didn't have to deal with most of the season; we tried internally to create some adversities and that's tough to do when you are winning as much as we were. But we're going through that now, so dealing with that in a positive manner and learning through that so we’re more prepared when it does inevitably happen is important.

I think dealing with the schedule is important as well, getting players rest is also a key. We're at a tough point in the season here now, we're dealing with different dynamics of having a lot of players in the NHL, of having another group of players that are maybe on the edge of their seats wondering when their opportunity might come or if it might come. So you've got those dynamics at play.

Then you’ve got the fact that the guys are just being ground down and tired, so we're managing that. As we look ahead we want to be a team that hopefully play for a long time here and has a lot of hockey left, and we're managing that. And that means getting our game really cleaned up in all areas. Little things like face-offs, special teams, we've really got to dial them in and get a lot better. Our play without the puck defensively, and the little things - managing the puck, managing the clock – all these things we know are vital in playoff hockey and need to be better at.

When you have the type of team that's been able to score the way we have, it's been able to make it such that a lot of other things don't matter. But when you go through a stretch like we are now, the competition we have and the type of teams we've been playing regularly, we knew there was a challenge ahead. There was a point in time – and I can't remember the exact number of games; I want to say it was around 40 to 45 game mark – when we stopped and looked where we were at that point in time and how we'd fared. I think we had played just over 30 percent of our games against teams that were in the playoffs. And the games that we had remaining, we had well over 50 percent of our games against teams that were in the playoffs. So the quality of our competition was changing greatly.

We knew tougher times were coming. We had to be prepared for that and we haven't dealt with it great, but that said, two weekends ago we had two losses to Utica and a loss to Rochester, and that wasn’t a good weekend for us in many areas. Last weekend, we had a dominant effort in Portland, we're up 2-0 nothing and play a terrific first period against Providence, and get a point out of that game and lose in overtime. And then we score first in Albany and it's a 2-2 game with under a minute left in the third period. So we're really close to having it be just a great weekend, but ultimately we only scored two goals in both games. That’s not enough goals to win consistently, and we did different things that contributed to the puck getting in our net. Those are the differences we need to clean up. The fact that we're in those games and we're close is a sign that we're right there, but the fact we're not on the right side of them shows we've still got work to do. But I'm happy those things have exposed themselves at this point in the season, because we've got time to get it rectified. As a coach, where do you get the most satisfaction in the job - is it when you see players moving up to the NHL level? Is it getting wins? A combination of both?

Sheldon Keefe: It is absolutely when I see progress in the players – and that doesn't always mean it's just the guys that get called up. Seeing them perform well when I watch very closely – and our entire staff watches very closely and is anxious to see how the players we've worked with can step in and perform at the NHL level – is tremendous. But even here, we’re teaching and coaching every day, and you want to see progress consistently. I've been fortunate in that all the levels that I've coached at, my teams have won a lot in the regular season. And anyone that's ever worked with me would confirm I don't get too excited about winning games too much, but I really enjoy seeing progress in players.

In many ways, this job that I've been able to work in this year is a perfect situation for me, because I don't get to measure myself on wins and losses, I measure myself on progress and players. Mike Babcock and the Toronto Maple Leafs ultimately want to see us develop players in a winning environment, but if we're winning every game but players go up and they have no idea what's going on, or their games are to a point where they can’t perform at the NHL level and they aren't getting better, I'm not doing a good job.

We want to make sure that every day we're pushing and we’re seeing progress, and that's really what gets us up out of bed and in here working long hours like we do every day - and it's not just me, it's the entire staff.

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