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Keefe changing outlook, attitude with Maple Leafs

New coach has made big strides in first 15 games since replacing Babcock

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Sheldon Keefe walked to the podium following the Toronto Maple Leafs' 8-6 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday wearing a wry grin on his face.

"Well, everything went exactly as planned so there's not a lot to talk about," he said, causing laughs among the reporters in the room.

Keefe was joking, of course.

The Maple Leafs saw a 3-0 lead in the first period turn into a 5-3 Hurricanes lead by 16:13 of the second period. Toronto scored five of the next six goals in the third period, paced by five points from forward Mitchell Marner, who had four of his five points (two goals, three assists) in the third period.

Video: CAR@TOR: Matthews, Marner connect for incredible goal

It made for a crazy way to head into the Christmas break in Toronto, where everything the Maple Leafs do is magnified.

The offseason was filled with drama surrounding Marner, a restricted free agent, who had the fanbase in collective angst until he signed a six-year, $65.3 million contract on Sept. 13.

It didn't get any smoother once the season began.

Marner was out 11 games with a high ankle sprain. Center John Tavares was out seven games with a finger injury. Toronto got off to a 9-10-4 start, resulting in the firing of coach Mike Babcock and the promotion of Keefe from Toronto of the American Hockey League on Nov 20.

Yet, with all this drama, the Maple Leafs (20-14-4) somehow enter the three-day Christmas break in second place in the Atlantic Division. This is the same Toronto team that was in fifth place when Babcock was fired.

What Keefe has shown in his time as an NHL coach is that he is different from Babcock and that he can push the right buttons.

The Maple Leafs are 11-4-0 since Keefe became coach and have won five games in a row. They've scored the first goal in eight straight games. Prior to that, they scored the first goal in nine of 30 games.

"We're just having fun out there," Marner said.

Video: CAR@TOR: Marner scores six seconds after Barrie

One aspect of Keefe's coaching that has come as a change to the players is his flexibility in how he uses his personnel.

In a 6-3 win against the New York Rangers on Friday, forward William Nylander scored two goals. Nylander was benched for much of the second period due to ineffectiveness in Toronto's 4-1 victory against the Detroit Red Wings the next night.

Babcock was a disciple of using four lines. He didn't like to double shift his key players or shake up his units even if his team was trailing.

Keefe, on the other hand, is all for going with his gut at times. He replaced Tavares with Auston Matthews between Marner and Zach Hyman against Carolina and it proved to be a masterful tactic. Marner scored two goals and assisted on a Matthews' goal in a 59-second span that saw Toronto rally from down 6-4 to go ahead 7-6.

"I think if I've shown anything in the early going here it's that I'm not going to stick with anything for too long," Keefe said.

Keefe also is for shortening his bench if need be and giving his key players additional ice time when earned. Matthews, for example, had a season low 14:34 in a 4-1 victory against the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 14, a game in which he struggled. On Monday he played 23:28, his second highest total of the season.

Video: CAR@TOR: Matthews rifles Hyman's dish past Mrazek

When asked what he's learned through his first 15 games, Keefe said one of the keys was to lean on his most talented players.

"What we've seen is that we have good players and we have good depth and we have the ability to set ourselves up to win games," Keefe said. "What we have to work at is just dealing with playing with that lead."

Whatever the case, the players are buying in. From the new focus on puck possession to having music blaring during practices, there is a much more lighthearted vibe around the Maple Leafs.

Keefe deserves a lot of credit for that. Though he can preach tough love when needed, his relationship with players is much more big brother-little brother than boss-employee.

Take the case of Jason Spezza.

There was a public outcry when Babcock made Spezza a healthy scratch for the season opener against Ottawa Oct. 2. The veteran forward, a Toronto-area native, had his entire family in the arena that night for his first regular-season game with the Maple Leafs, only to sit in the press box because of a coaching decision.

Compare that to Monday, which was known as the Next Generation game. Hundreds of kids were at Scotiabank Arena as part of the event including Spezza's children.

Video: CAR@TOR: Spezza backhands rebound for opening goal

Keefe wanted to make it special for Spezza, so the coach made sure he was out for the opening face-off.

"To be honest, the biggest thing was I had a sense here frankly that with it being the Next Generation game and it being a two o'clock start that he would have his (four) girls in the building," Keefe said. "It was a chance to give him a little moment there."

Spezza responded by opening the scoring 30 seconds into the game.

"It worked out for us," Keefe said.

Through 15 games as Maple Leafs coach, most things have.

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