Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe and GM Laurence Gilman addressed the media on locker cleanout day, discussing Keefe’s contract extension, the Marlies’ deep run in the playoffs, players that are ready to take the next step, and more.
You signed a two-year extension here today. How does that feel and how does it come about, signing that contract?
Keefe: It feels good, of course. It is something that we had worked towards in the last couple of months. It was done before today, obviously, but I am thrilled about the opportunity to remain in the organization and continue to work with young players here. I have grown a lot over my time here. I believe I will continue to grow. At the same time, my family gets to remain in the same place. It has already been four years. That, in itself, is rare in this business, so to be able to continue to be here is something that is important. At the same time, the people that I’ve been able to work with here have helped me a great deal. I just really believe in what has been happening and what is going on here. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to continue to be a part of it.
Is one of the pluses that the organization continues to replenish you with good players?
Keefe: Of course. All the resources are here. Not just in players, but whether it’s human resources or financial resources, the things that we need to succeed in developing Maple Leafs and competitive Marlies teams are here. Because of that, I have always looked at this as the best job outside of the NHL. I think those that are in the business across the American league agree with that. I’ve had a number of people that I’ve spoken to that feel that way. I recognize just how much of a privilege it is to have this job. As I say, the most important thing for me is I feel I am growing every day. It is through the people and players that are around me.
One of the narratives we’ve heard over the past few days is that it is a team that overachieved in the playoffs. What was your assessment of what this team achieved in the playoffs?
Keefe: I feel like we could or should be playing still here today. I feel we left something on the table there. That is just through the natural competitiveness of myself and our leadership group especially. That was the theme that came out of the meeting that we had with our guys today.
But when you look big picture, we faced a lot of different obstacles and adversity this season. We didn’t get off to a good start at all. We didn’t clinch a playoff spot until right near the end of the season. We went up against one of the league’s top teams in the first round in a short series and found our way through that.
There is a lot to feel good about with this group, in particular. You sit down with all of the players individually and you start to really reflect on the individual growth of the players. The players are really what makes it possible. That is something you feel good about. To be able to witness that and be a part of it is important. Credit to our players for continuing to work and continuing to be resilient. Especially in the American Hockey League, it is a challenging level to get players to push through obstacles when things are difficult. But this team never stopped. It continued to grow.
It was again a privilege to be a part of this group. They made the coaching staff look good every day. I am one of the benefactors of that.
Has it been nice to see Trevor Moore’s growth and where he is at now versus where he was when he arrived with the organization?
Keefe: It really has. One of the things I shared with him today is that I really believe that Trevor Moore’s path really becomes the model here with the Marlies. You get players that are on different paths that end up here. You get high draft picks — first round picks — and usually, those guys, when they are drafted, have a certain expectation for themselves that they are NHL players. Everyone in their circle has that expectation and the organization has that expectation. You have a role to help facilitate that.
When you get players such as Trevor Moore, an undrafted free agent who comes in and struggles in his first year and is struggling even in his second year as a healthy scratch in the first half of the season, and you see him find his way and start to really believe in himself and never look back, that is a fun process to be a part of. Again, the credit goes to Trevor for believing in himself and just deciding to come to work every single day and bringing a level of consistency that really becomes the model around here.
Your fingerprints are already on the Maple Leafs, to a certain degree. Do you look beyond the two years and would you like to be a Leafs lifer, for lack of a better term, and stay with the organization in some capacity?
Keefe: I don’t know what the future holds for me. I do know I am grateful for the opportunity to have another two years added to my contract. I am very happy, both myself and my family. It has been really great to be able to have my young family here in the GTA. My parents are here in the area. I grew up here. That has been special.
In terms of what the future holds for me, I don’t know. All I know is my job every day is to get better, improve myself, and be as good of a coach as I can and be prepared for any opportunity that might come up, wherever that might be and whenever that might be.
When the opportunity on the Leafs‘ assistants bench came up, did you at all consider that?
Keefe: No, it didn’t. Obviously, I am committed here and the contract was something that was already done. I was committed to this role and responsibility. I know there are areas I can continue to grow in as a head coach. I believe this is the best fit for me to do that. I will continue to be committed. As much as I love playing and being behind the bench and you want to be competitive, I really enjoy the offseason because it is a time to really grow. You have a chance after that offseason to implement different things. It is not just the on-ice stuff but the off-ice stuff and how you relate to players, how you communicate to players, and how you work with your staff. There are so many things there where I want to continue to grow and I think I’ve got a great opportunity here to do that.
I’ve been an assistant coach before at different levels and I respect that position a lot. It is important. The assistants we have here are vital to our operation, but I see myself as a head coach currently here. For the time being, that is my focus. If down the line I feel that I need to be an assistant to gain some extra experience, I can entertain that at that point in time, but right now, I am happy with where I am at in this organization for so many different reasons. I am grateful to have such a position.
How did you find working with Laurence Gilman and how difficult was the job he had to do this year given all the player movement that you guys had to deal with?
Keefe: I enjoyed it a lot. I didn’t know Laurence really well other than some brief dealings we had together when I was a player. But he came in under some tough circumstances himself in an organization that has been rolling along pretty well and had just won a Calder Cup. I had such a close relationship with Kyle. But our relationship has grown greatly since we’ve been able to spend more time together and since we’ve been able to experience such an up-and-down season where we dealt with so many things.
I’ve really learned to value his wisdom and his experience. He has a story or an example, it seems, to match anything that comes up and how he has dealt with it in the past or how different people he’s worked with — different coaches, different players — have handled different situations. That is tremendous experience and wisdom that I can fall on, but also just his dealings with players and agents to help us through tough times was valuable this season. I am looking forward to now, having a bit of a longer offseason, to be able to continue to develop that relationship. I look forward to the plan the Maple Leafs have in place for next year’s edition of the Marlies.
Pierre Engvall transitioned into that center role. He seemed to really enjoy it and the defensive side of it especially. How did you see him grow into that?
Keefe: What allowed him to, first of all, was an open mind. He needed to have that. He needed to accept the responsibilities that come with playing center and he did that. And then he has the skill set. He is such a great skater and he is a big, strong guy. The extra physical confrontations at the faceoff dot or down low in his own zone were not an issue for him. In fact, I think it really helped his game. He felt more engaged in the play because he was constantly having to battle for position, constantly having to skate the full length of the ice, and he was more engaged in the play and more involved physically. It helped him in all other areas of the game.
With an open mind and definitely the skill set that he brings, we thought it was natural to give that a try and we planned on it throughout the season. We were just waiting for the right time. When that time materialized, he showed very quickly he could excel in that position. We were happy to add that to what we thought was just a nice defensive foundation we were trying to develop in him this season.
On the blue line, you have two young players in Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin. Do you see them, with a good summer, as capable of making the jump and pushing next season? What would they need to do in order to push?
Keefe: As young players, they need to have great summers, of course, and continue to get stronger — all of the things that all young players need to go through. They’re very young guys, so I don’t think it is appropriate or fair to put any sort of expectations on them other than to give them an opportunity to show what they can do and where they are at.
What I will say is that the development of those two players has really been a launching point for our team. There are so many things that fell into place, but Liljegren coming back from his injury the way that he did and blossoming and being such a responsible and reliable defensive player to go with the offensive attributes that he has — that helped us tremendously. Sandin coming in as an 18-year-old first-year player and playing with a great deal of poise and dealing with this own injury issues and responding to that really helped us. I think all those guys need is an opportunity to show what they can do. When the organization deems it is the right time, it will be the right time.
One of the things we chatted about again today is that Liljegren just finished his 19-year-old season and has already competed in seven playoff series at the professional level. Not a lot of players can say that. That is tremendous experience, especially this season being such a big part of it and playing on the top pair and taking on so many responsibilities. It has been fun to watch those guys grow for sure, and we believe in their potential. I think it is just going to be a matter of when the timing and opportunity is right for them.
Do you see Engvall on that Trevor Moore train in terms of him leading the team in 5v5 goals this year, playing really well defensively, and he is much more engaged in the play as a center? Do you see him being able to take another step next year and taking on a bigger role on the team?
Keefe: I do. I figure that will be the case for him. I think he will also be a guy who will come in with an additional level of confidence and will not come in with the mindset of taking on a bigger role with the Marlies but rather making the Maple Leafs. I think that is an important distinction — coming in with that mindset. Ultimately, if you end up down with the Marlies, I think you are better suited with where you are at mentally if you were pushed and motivated through the summer. We’ve encouraged him and a number of other players to come in with the mindset that they want to be Maple Leafs and that should be their focus.
General Manager Laurence Gilman on Sheldon Keefe: “He is one of the best coaches in the AHL”
How satisfying is it to lock up Sheldon Keefe for the next two years?
Gilman: It is exceptionally gratifying because I think he is one of the best coaches in the AHL. I think he is a great hockey mind. He manages our roster well. He is the life beat of our dressing room. It means the fortunes of our team are going to be good going forward.
Was there some anxiety that a coach of that calibre moves along, perhaps up to the NHL?
Gilman: Yes and no. Good people get good opportunities over time. That is how this business works. Am I happy that he is going to be back and I am going to work side by side with him next year? I am ecstatic about that. Most importantly, it is the best thing for the development of our young players to move this organization forward. He is a great coach with a great future ahead of him. I am sure there is going to be a lot of opportunity in his future.
How was the relationship with you two this year? You didn’t know each other too well going into it, but it seemed to develop well enough.
Gilman: It was interesting coming in, particularly with the team having won a Calder Cup. I had observed Sheldon from afar last year as the team was marching to the final, but over time, whenever you are in a new relationship like this in business, there is a time you have to establish yourself, whether that is with the players or the head coach. In time, I think we have grown to have tremendous mutual respect for each other. I think he is an incredibly intelligent person. I think he is unbelievably thoughtful. I like working with him very much as I do all the staff here.
A lot of player movement this year. How did you find the gig in your first year with all that you faced to make sure this team was going as deep as it did?
Gilman: We knew going into the season that this team wasn’t going to be as competitive as the juggernaut that basically led the AHL last year from start to finish. It was further complicated by the goaltenders that we lost in the waiver period. We started 1-5-0 and we had some injuries and addition along the way, so it was incredibly important for us to maintain the competitive ability of the team, and that meant making roster moves. It was at times gut-wrenching but it was also very enjoyable because everyone here is so incredibly efficient. Our pro scouting staff is very, very knowledgeable. We had a great understanding of the market of players and great relationships with other teams, so we were able to make trades to keep things going until the team gained its footing.
Did the Growlers success almost make that more difficult knowing you don’t want to strip them of some of their talent?
Gilman: No, because you have to give life to every level of your development program. It is incredibly important that the players that are in our system that are playing for the Growlers have life and believe they can come up and play. Whether that is Sam Jardine or any other player along the way — O’Brien, whoever it may be — you have to have integrity at that level or you will lose it and you will lose the soul of that team. I think the Growlers have been an immensely positive aspect and actually pushed our players here with the Marlies to get better.
Can you talk about the Growlers and where they are now and what they’ve done?
Gilman: It’s amazing. I can’t wait. After we wrap up today, I am actually headed to Toledo, where I am going to follow the Growlers for the balance of the season. The staff there — John Snowden, Darryl Williams, Ryane Clowe before him — have done a great job. They have an unbelievable culture there. If anybody wants to go see an amazing environment, go to St. John’s, Newfoundland because a game is a happening event there. It has been a tremendous, tremendous success for us and we couldn’t be happier.
There are a couple of local kids playing for that team. Can you talk about O’Brien and a couple of others who have created some local interest?
Gilman: The team has a fairly big Newfoundland flair. You have Adam Pardy playing for them. You have a number of players and that certainly adds to it. But if the Growlers win the Kelly Cup, the rings that are going to get passed out will be no less shiny because there are players other than Newfoundland playing on the roster.