One year in, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe on what he’s learned and where the Leafs go from here

Canada

Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe is all in on a Canadian Division.

“All fingers are pointing towards that,” Keefe told the Star in a phone interview. “I think it’s I think it’s really exciting. I think it presents its own its own challenges, given that when I look at the Canadian teams, virtually every one made positive changes.”

The constraints of the coronavirus pandemic has led to a delayed start to the 2020-21 season and will likely put the Leafs in the same division as the other six Canadian teams after the league and the NHL Players Association agree to terms for the next season.

To get the season in, the Canadian teams will play only each other, crossing the border only after the second round of the playoffs is complete and a Canadian division champion crowned.

“It’s something that’s very exciting for the fans,” Keefe said. “I’m sure that Canadian sports fans would embrace it.”

Montreal was already on the rise — outperforming the Leafs in the summertime Stanley Cup playoffs by getting past the qualifying round — before making some significant off-season moves. Out west, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Winnipeg all look better on paper. Ditto the lowly Ottawa Senators to the east.

“They’re expecting to have big seasons,” Keefe said of his would-be Canadian opponents. “The challenge there, of course, is really exciting for a team like us is knowing that we wouldn’t be able to have days off, not that you can in the NHL.”

Teams might also play baseball-like series. The Leafs might visit Vancouver for two games in two nights, or three game in four nights, to cut costs on travel and reduce the risk of catching and spreading the virus.

“That’s something that I’ve become familiar with given my time in the AHL where playing two games on back-to-back nights against the same opponent, and sometimes playing three, is quite commonplace,” Keefe said. “And I’m used to playing teams eight, 10, 12 times in a season.

“Sure, you get to know your opponents better. But as you know your opponents better, they also know you better. So it has a very playoff type of feel to it in that sense.”

Hired on Nov. 20, 2019, Keefe has been head coach of the Maple Leafs for a calendar year. He will participate in a online coaches forum this weekend that would in a normal year be run in-house at the Scotiabank Arena after a morning skate.

He spoke to the Star in advance of his session about his growth as a coach, the disappointment of the 2019-20 season, and about the changes the Leafs have made.

In a normal year, you would be doing this coach’s clinic in person. This year, for obvious reasons, it’s online. What messages do you hope to convey?

I’m trying to articulate my leadership style and philosophy, and what I’ve been through with my journey and path, coming from coaching the junior-A level to the OHL to the American league and NHL. Lessons learned through that journey — (if) anybody can learn from my experiences, then all the better. I think it’s so vital to be able to share information and experience. I spent the better part of six-and-half, seven years in Pembroke at the junior-A level, a level that doesn’t have the greatest level of resources. You’re always looking for information, you’re looking for help and guidance, and you want to find ways to grow and learn and find ways to acquire more information and experience.

How much do coaches ask you about the analytics of the sport these days?

Not a great deal, to be honest. It’s so common now. They’re at every level. There’s all sorts of companies that are tracking games at all levels. Most people are quite educated when it comes to that. The special sauce is trying to figure out what is relevant and what is most important and applying it to how you coach.

What’s your overall feeling on being an NHL coach for the last year?

It’s as much a privilege as I had expected it to be — the fact you’re one of 31 coaches and you’re working with the best of the best in all regards, players and staff. So you recognize that. My experience has been extremely unique, given that I was hired mid-season, (in a) shortened season (with a) bubble life. Far from a traditional introduction to the NHL. But coaching the Leafs in particular is a very special opportunity and obligation and responsibility. I knew that coming into the position. I don’t take that lightly.

What do you think you’ve learned about yourself in your time behind the bench with the Leafs?

What I’ve learned is to trust myself. When you haven’t coached in the NHL, you feel prepared but it’s still a jump … A lot of things you’re experiencing for the first time, whether it’s building relationships with a lot of the players on our team, whether it’s preparing for certain opponents or certain coaches, whether it’s working with your staff. Over time, I just learned to trust myself and trust that, despite the fact the challenge is greater and the scale is much larger and it’s the best of the best, it still is hockey and there are many parallels of situations and scenarios that present themselves that I’ve encountered at other levels.

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How are you handling criticism from fans and media?

I felt that was an easy part. Maybe it’s my own personality, to be able to tune things out and not get emotional about that kind of stuff. I felt prepared and I think I had the appropriate demeanour to not be too concerned about the outside noise and focus on the job that we need to do.

Did you ever look back at the season and go: “Oh, I wish I had done (that) differently,” like a different line combination or a different healthy scratch or a different goalie?

Well, we lost, so there’s many things you look at and you wish you’d done it differently. Because clearly what you had done didn’t work. To sit here and say you made all the right decisions and did all the right things, that would be pretty foolish. We definitely want to get better the next time out. I don’t know if you could necessarily pin it down to one or two things but, when we reflect upon it, there are things you would want to do better or differently. There’s a lot of interesting things there that have me very excited about a fresh start.

What do you think of some of the changes, bringing in T.J. Brodie, Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton?

I’m really excited. I think that really changes a lot of the dynamics and the feel around our team, which I think is important through the additions of experience and personality. That’s a great thing for us. That will help everything from the camaraderie of the group, the togetherness, and the internal competition, accountability. Those are areas we wanted to improve … Looking at people that we lost, and the people that we brought in, I think we made significant additions in those areas.

It looks like you’ve got a great deal more depth heading into this season.

I do expect there to be a great level of competition that will begin in training camp and will continue all through the season, which is really what you want. With where we’re at, we need people to be hungry, to be pushing everybody on our team. In order to do that, you have to have the appropriate level of depth at all positions. And I think we have that — forward, defence and goaltending. So that’s exciting. When you have a level of competition, you also have options and that’s a good thing as well.

Speaking of options, how many line combinations have you considered in the off-season?

A fair bit, but not as many as you might think. We’re pretty comfortable with how we’d like to get things going with the team. We’ll see once we know more about how an actual training camp itself might look, and how the beginning of the season might look like in terms of a time frame and exhibition season. I’m comfortable with the people that we have but I’m very much open to what might transpire in training camp. I expect some of the things that I had in mind will change through performance and preparation, given that we have so much competition. To say what I have in mind right now is what it’s going to look like when we open the season would be misleading because of the level of internal competition that we have. I think the players are going to sort that out over time.

What do you like about having Thornton?

The first thing is his passion. In my conversations, you can feel his energy, his passion, his excitement. That’s why he’s still going as strong as he is in his career, because he has that. That’s something that I’m really excited to bring into our locker room.

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