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Maple Leafs' Keefe learned from Tortorella, his opponent in Qualifiers

Says philosophy on team concept formed playing under Blue Jackets coach

by Dave McCarthy / Independent Correspondent

TORONTO -- John Tortorella wants a long and successful coaching career for Sheldon Keefe, but he does not want to see Keefe's success begin just yet.

"I wish nothing but the best for that guy," Tortorella said earlier this week. "Other than this series."

When Keefe coaches the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Toronto on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVAS, FS-O), he will be opposed by Tortorella, his coach for 93 of his 125 games as an NHL forward.

"Playing for him as a young guy was difficult," said Keefe, who was 20 years old his first season under Tortorella. "He made it tough to earn your way as a young player, and I was caught up in that, but certainly as I made the transition from playing to being a coach and I started thinking about what I valued and how I was going to put together a program, that's when you really learn to respect the process of how John put together a team concept."

Keefe played for Tortorella in three seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, from 2001-2003. The 39-year-old said the experience played a big role in forming his philosophy and vision as a coach.

"Especially as you look back on it -- I didn't get to play on that Stanley Cup championship team in Tampa in 2004 -- but I was there through the process of that team growing from one year to the next to the next, eventually to the point where it was too good for me to play on," Keefe said July 16. "That process and seeing how he put all that together to eventually build it to a champion, frankly, has been a foundation of my coaching since I started with Pembroke at the junior A level."

Video: Hockey is Back: Columbus vs. Toronto Begins Aug. 1

The Maple Leafs are the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference Qualifiers, and the Blue Jackets are the No. 9 seed. They will face each other in one of four best-of-5 series at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the East's hub city. The winner will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the loser will have a chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery, to be held Aug. 10.

Keefe is attempting to guide Toronto from being a team with elite young talent to one that consistently contends for the Stanley Cup.

It is a situation like the one Tortorella, now 62, faced when he replaced Steve Ludzik as Tampa Bay coach 39 games into the 2000-01 season.

Keefe was the same age as forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, who were integral to the Lightning's Stanley Cup championship team. He is looking to help Maple Leafs forwards Auston Matthews, 22, Mitchell Marner, 23, and William Nylander, 24, each maximize his ability like Tortorella did with Lecavalier and Richards.

"Just how John handled young players and elite young players, I remember," Keefe said. "… John was a big part of shaping their careers and having success with him."

When Keefe was promoted from Toronto of the American Hockey League to replace Mike Babcock as Maple Leafs coach Nov. 20, 2019, his former coach was one of the people who reached out to him.

"I got a nice note from John when I got this job and was promoted up with the Leafs, and I'm very grateful for that," Keefe said. "I learned a lot from John and have been fortunate to reconnect over the last few years."

Although Keefe did not have a long NHL playing career, Tortorella said he noticed how hard he competed.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for that guy," Tortorella said. "He's one of the most competitive players I've coached. I didn't coach him a lot of games. But when he played, he knew one way, and that was to play hard."

Now, Keefe, who has 27 NHL coaching wins and is entering his first postseason experience in the League, said he intends to show respect for Tortorella, 14th in NHL history with 655 wins, by the way he will have the Maple Leafs prepared to compete.

"I'm ready. The one thing about Torts is he is an ultimate competitor, and I'd like to believe I'm a competitor at the same time," Keefe said. "The greatest way to show respect is to make sure you are ready to compete. So that will be all you'll hear from me in terms of talking about John and our past. I'm just going to focus on getting our team ready to compete, that's the greatest way to show someone respect."

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