TORONTO -- Sheldon Keefe was named coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday, and according to the players he led with Toronto's American Hockey League team, he's the perfect choice.
"You'd go through a wall for a guy like that," forward Jeremy Bracco said. "He's got his players' backs and he's a lot of fun to be around at the rink. A head coach has to be serious at times, but he likes to keep it light as well. He's an honest guy, he's a players' coach and I'm sure the guys up there will love him."
Keefe, who was in his fifth season coaching the Toronto Marlies, replaces Mike Babcock, who was fired Wednesday with the Maple Leafs winless (0-5-1) in their past six games.
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The 39-year-old will make his NHL coaching debut when the Maple Leafs play the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on Thursday (9 p.m. ET; FS-A, FS-PLUS, SNO, NHL.TV).
Under Keefe, Bracco improved from 32 points (six goals, 26 assists) in 50 games during his rookie AHL season in 2017-18 to 79 points (22 goals, 57 assists), second in the AHL, in 75 games last season.
"I'm ecstatic for Keefe," Bracco said. "He's been a guy who's groomed me and given me a chance to blossom in this league. I'd like to give a lot of the credit for things I've accomplished so I'm just happy for him."
Forward Adam Brooks experienced a similar jump in his second season with the Marlies last season with 40 points (21 goals, 19 assists) in 61 games after having 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists) in 57 games during his rookie season.
"When I came into the league it was a huge adjustment for me, probably a little harder than I thought it was going to be," Brooks said. "But he's been there the whole way. He always tells you exactly what he wants. And when he sees your game isn't going the way he wants, he straightens it out and shows you what you're doing wrong.
"I can't thank him enough for everything he's done for us and the development he's helped with for so many guys making the jump to the NHL. It shows what kind of a coach he is."
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Current Maple Leafs forwards Andreas Johnsson, Frederik Gauthier, Pierre Engvall, Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen, Trevor Moore and William Nylander, defensemen Travis Dermott and Justin Holl, and goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo all spent time with the Marlies under Keefe.
Bracco said he always found Keefe to be a strong communicator.
"You know where you stand, you know what you need to do to contribute to play a lot and he expects you to be better in the areas you're not so good at," Bracco said. "He's very easy to talk to about life, not just hockey. He's always been with an open-door policy."
Timothy Liljegren, who the Maple Leafs selected with the No. 17 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, has played under Keefe with the Marlies since 2017-18. The plan with Liljegren was to refine his defensive game the past two seasons. Now in his third season, Liljegren, with nine points (one goal, eight assists) in 14 games, is starting to incorporate his offensive skillset into his game.
"I gained a lot of confidence from him," Liljegren said of Keefe. "He wants players who are being creative but at the same time follow the structure and work hard. He's easy to talk to, and if you have any problems you can go to him and discuss it and often he has a good answer for you. As long as I've played structured he's let me be creative."
Goalie Michael Hutchinson, who spent 23 games with the Marlies last season and was with the Maple Leafs before being assigned to the AHL on Nov. 12, is confident Keefe will have success with the Maple Leafs.
"The way Sheldon is coaching here, I'm positive it's going to translate to success up at the NHL level," Hutchinson said. "He sees the game a little bit differently than most coaches and it's in a way where every single day when I come to the rink, I learn something new just listening to him."