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Maple Leafs need to embrace coaching, system changes, GM says

Dubas asks players 'to be a little bit uncomfortable' after Keefe replaces Babcock as coach

by Alan Robinson / Independent Correspondent

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Toronto Maple Leafs will be making changes in their style and their system -- and, they hope, their performance -- now that they've fired coach Mike Babcock, general manager Kyle Dubas said Thursday.

The changes won't always be seamless and won't necessarily yield immediate results, but Dubas is convinced the Maple Leafs (9-10-4) will be a better team now that Sheldon Keefe is their coach.

"It's not a perfect time to make a coaching change," Dubas said Thursday at Gila River Arena, where the Maple Leafs will visit the Arizona Coyotes in Keefe's NHL coaching debut (9 p.m. ET; FS-A, FS-A PLUS, SNO, NHL.TV). "What I asked them (the players) for was solely their increased focus, concentration, work ethic and the ability to be a little bit uncomfortable because we're going to go through some changes stylistically and with our systems. It may not look great at times and it may not feel great at times.

"But in the long run, it's to get the group to play the way that it's absolutely designed to play. Our goal remains the same, to maximize the capability of each individual player."

Video: Sheldon Keefe on the Marlies winning the Calder Cup

Keefe said he expects a new system will help the team perform to the best of its ability.

"My message to the players today is that I'm not focused on what this team isn't, I'm focused on what this team is -- and we've got really good people here, we've got a lot of talent," Keefe said. "We have the ability to make life harder on the other team in a lot of ways. So focusing on that we believe will produce positive results, because the players are good enough for that to happen. 

"Putting together a good process and a good structure and following through on that on a daily basis, we think, will set us up for success and real results are going to come." 

Dubas said he believes Keefe, who was coaching the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League, will "get the most out of the players.

"I've watched Sheldon now and in two different spots, and [he can] absolutely maximize the capabilities of each player and help them find their best," Dubas said. "And that's what we're looking forward to getting to work on and rolling from there."

Defenseman Morgan Rielly said it's on him and his teammates, including those who played for Keefe in the AHL, to turn the season around. 

"There are guys in here that have had experience (with Keefe). You ask questions about who he is, as a person, as a coach, and then you know you find out for yourself he's got a great reputation amongst the guys he's had," Rielly said. "I mean it's kind of a clean slate for him. As a group we want to play well for him and try to do a good job. As players, we've got to answer the bell.

Dubas and team president Brendan Shanahan made the decision to fire Babcock, who was in his fifth season with Toronto, during a six-game winless streak (0-5-1). 

Shanahan wouldn't say the Maple Leafs had tuned out their coach; however, something was missing. 

"But you could see the frustration in their eyes," Shanahan said. "Even in our last game (a 4-2 loss at the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday), the players were working really hard but there was a sort of a belief missing in them.

"Sometimes people want to too simplistically put us in one box, as speed and skill, and toughness and grit in an entirely different box, but we want to be tough, we want to be gritty."

Dubas shared in the blame for the Maple Leafs' slow start, saying he's "disappointed in myself and only myself" that he and Babcock didn't work out better. Dubas was promoted to general manager 18 months ago. 

He also said, despite some disagreements in the past with Keefe, the relationship with the new Maple Leafs coach is healthy. 

"Sheldon and I, in our past, have had some of our biggest disagreements and arguments I've ever had with of anybody working with," Dubas said. "But in the end we are largely, and philosophically, in terms in style of play, always been aligned and on the same page."

Shanahan dismissed the notion the firing of Babcock has turned up the heat on him, Dubas and the players. Toronto has been eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past three seasons and hasn't won a playoff series since the 2003-04 season.  

"That I've sometimes heard that, 'Well, the pressure is now on Kyle' and "The pressure is now on the players.' There's pressure on them all the time," Shanahan said. 

Video: Friedman discusses the firing of Mike Babcock

"There's pressure on me, there was pressure on us last year. There will be pressure on us in subsequent years. That's part of the job. 

"I don't see this or view this decision by Kyle and the team as a situation where traditionalists might say you've spent your bullet. That's not how I view it. I can tell you that's not how our ownership views it. We're in this together."

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