While not exactly a well kept secret—and widely speculated since the hiring of Kyle Dubas nearly a year ago—the Toronto Maple Leafs have hired former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds Head Coach, Sheldon Keefe, as the new Head Coach of the Toronto Marlies.
In his two full seasons with the Greyhounds, Keefe amassed a 98-29-9 record, including a second-round playoff exit in 2013-14 and most recently a six-game Western Conference Final loss to Connor McDavid’s Erie Otters last month; a somewhat disappointing result, not getting past round three, given SSM’s depth (already a really strong team, they added Anthony DeAngelo, Nick Ritchie and Justin Bailey before the trade deadline) and league-best 54-12-2 regular season record.
With the sense that a year more behind the bench for Keefe with Sault Ste Marie was in order before he was ready for the next step, Marlies GM Kyle Dubas promoted long-time Marlies assistant Gord Dineen to head coach once Steve Spott was moved up the ladder onto Randy Carlyle’s staff last summer. Dubas reshuffled the coaching staff a few weeks ago to make space for his former Greyhounds colleague, relieving assistant Derek King of his duties and offering former head coach Gord Dineen a reduced role on the bench. At last check, Dineen is said to be still considering his options.
The late season surge into a playoff spot for the Marlies — who were always in tough for a playoff appearance with a much, much younger roster than years previous — has to make this entire deal a harsh one to swallow for Dineen, but it’s not exactly surprising. While it’s taken about a year to happen, Shanahan, Dubas and Hunter have nearly fully replaced the inherited holdovers from the previous regime with their “own guys.” Dubas also recently spoke about the need for the Marlies to be a breeding ground for not just good NHL player talent, but NHL coaching talent as well. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Marlies had some positive developments this season under Dineen’s watch. That said, bringing into the fold a 34 year old coaching prospect who is going to be simpatico with the philosophies of Marlies GM Kyle Dubas (on player development, avoiding the rigid predefinition of player roles, incorporating analytics) would seem to better fit what the Leafs are trying to build with their development arm.
Indeed, more than anything Keefe has actually accomplished as a coach so far in his very young career, it’s his reputation as a bright up and coming hockey mind, player developer and his progressive approach to incorporating analytics into his coaching methods that has had many talking about a future for him at the highest level. Dubas has spoken often about the importance of having people at all levels of the organization fully on board with the new management’s more analytical approach for the whole thing to click. For those reasons, this hire was a long time coming.
The Marlies have to become a more productive factory for NHL talent — not just a competitive AHL team — and the hope is Keefe will oversee a number of successful graduations in the years coming. While Mike Babcock has been given a long-term commitment as the Leafs‘ head coaching fixture, the biggest sign of Keefe’s success here over the next several seasons will be if other teams come knocking. As Babcock said:
One of the things I’m most proud of in our run in Detroit in the last ten years since the salary cap – the only team to make the playoffs every year for ten years, we had a 106.4 points a year and I only know that because one of these teams I interviewed with showed me, we had 23 playoff rounds, the most at that time – what we did is we developed people. Steve Yzerman and Pat Verbeek in Tampa. Jimmy Nill is in Dallas. Todd McLellan is in Edmonton. Paul McLean was in Ottawa. Bill Peters in Carolina. Blashill is going to be the next coach for the Wings. I’m missing somebody in that process. These people came to Detroit and they got better and the players got better and we developed talent and we made better men.
That’s the hope, anyway. In saying all of this, as good of a reputation as Keefe carries, he’s obviously got a lot to prove.
Keefe will be learning under Mike Babcock, an attractive part of the job for any candidate interviewed for the Marlies coaching position (just need to look at the list of people who have worked and learned under Babcock and moved on to bigger things in their careers). The continuity of systems between the AHL and NHL — ensuring the expectations are the same and the players are prepared when called on, with no mixed messaging for the team’s prospects — is something the two will be working in tandem to establish and will be an important part of successfully transitioning young talent from one level to the next. The Leafs will be hoping Babcock-Keefe can accomplish a working relationship as effective, and a system as productive, as Babcock and Jeff Blashill’s in Detroit.
Keefe’s checkered past, involvement with David Frost, and his growth as a person and a coach has been well documented in a couple of good pieces here by Damien Cox and Gare Joyce, as well as in a chapter dedicated to Keefe in Bob McKenzie’s Hockey Confidential.