New Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe joined TSN Overdrive on Friday evening, discussing his first NHL win in Arizona, the process of familiarizing himself with the team and the league, and his relationship with past Marlies and GM Kyle Dubas.
What’s it like being a head coach in the NHL, let alone head coach of the Maple Leafs?
Keefe: It is good. It has been a whirlwind at times to get to this point, but it was fun to get working with the guys yesterday. We went from our first meeting in the morning skate and then to playing the game, of course. It felt really good and it was a pretty special day on a personal level. Having my family there, we spend a lot of time in Arizona. My wife is from Scottsdale and my parents were able to make the trip, and we have some friends out there. It was a good day.
Did you have to wrack your brain on what you wanted to do first — whether it was getting to Auston Matthews or Morgan Rielly or sitting with the whole team? How did you break down the list of things you wanted to get to the first thing you got to the rink?
Keefe: I kind of went through a lot of different scenarios to kind of get myself organized on that. I was fortunate that, on my flight from Toronto out to Phoenix, I flew with both Mitch Marner and John Tavares. Between games, John had returned to Toronto. We flew in together, so we were trapped together and the three of us were able to talk for the better part of three or four hours on a number of things. That really helped me gain some valuable perspective on how things had been going and helped me kind of prioritize what I was going to do on that first day.
Any awkward pauses? That’s a long flight. At some point, you can’t be talking for four straight hours.
Keefe: It was a small plane and it was tight there. I was definitely able to break it up a little bit. We had a little stop in Chicago to clear customs and fuel up. We actually got off the plane and got into a boardroom and were able to watch some video and settle in that way. That broke it up, and we did a little snoozing, too, which I had a lot of time to make some plans and get myself organized. It wasn’t straight talk the whole time, but we got some very productive time together. That certainly helped me.
Was there a moment yesterday where it was a little bit surreal for you? Was the first moment on the bench or your first call behind the bench? Was there something that kind of stood out?
Keefe: I don’t want to undersell it by any means, but just the one thing I felt very good about is that I felt very comfortable throughout the day. I think a lot of that is due to the fact that I have had so much exposure to the Leafs through training camp and through exhibition seasons now for five seasons. For that, I have to credit and thank Mike Babcock for just how much he was able to involve me. I spoke with him the other day and what I did is thank him for that because of that exposure. I had been on the bench for a handful of NHL exhibition games. I just felt very comfortable in that sense. Believe me, I recognize the privilege it is to coach in the NHL and coach the Leafs in particular, but I was really happy just how comfortable I felt yesterday. That made things move a lot quicker and a lot smoother.
You seemed happy throughout the game. You guys were winning and the team played well. Is that standard procedure for you, or is that just because of the moment?
Keefe: I think the moment was part of it, but there was a lot to be happy about yesterday. It started with just the morning and how things went and how receptive the players were to me and my discussions with them individually, and in the team meeting and the response to the team meeting and the morning skate. It was just a good day in that sense. I felt really good about that.
There were just a lot of good moments and cool moments in the game really aside from how we played. That was secondary. I was expecting it to be sloppy and a bit of a mess as guys are trying to figure things out. We’re probably not out of the woods in that situation, but the energy of the team was really good and the interaction on the bench and the reactions after goals — those types of things to me are real indicators of the type of team you have and the morale of the team. We want to have a group that is thriving and is vibrant. We had lots of that yesterday, so we are hoping to work for that to continue.
Ultimately, yesterday was a good day, but the good days are easy. They’re not all going to be good and easy days. How can we put together a program that is sustainable through difficult times and adversity and having good team spirit and camaraderie and all of that? That has to be the foundation for it.
You have a history with a lot of players — almost half that group. Did you say anything to Pierre Engvall after he fell on his celebration at all?
Keefe: Nothing in particular about the fall. I had a little chuckle. He is known for some of these one-legged celebrations. Some of his Marlies goals had some interesting ones. It got the better of him there in the moment. That was fun. The guy gets his first NHL goal and you kind of go full blackout there for a little it, and I think that is what happened.
You knew them as Marlies, and now it is the NHL. How do you take your experience in the AHL and say, “I know what that guy represented… I know what he plays like and who is he as a guy,” and apply it to the NHL?
Keefe: I certainly have to keep things in perspective. I think as time goes on, I’ll be able to find my bearings on that a lot better. That said, coming into this, I am trying not to be too wide-eyed or overwhelmed by the situation. While it certainly is the NHL and I recognize the step up is significant, there have been countless players — 75, 80% of players I think it is — that played in the AHL and ended up being very successful NHL players. The players belong.
I think where the positive is is that I know and trust these guys in situations that maybe they haven’t had an opportunity to yet. A good example of that yesterday is that we were trying to fix our penalty kill and make some changes there and Pierre Engvall gets an opportunity to kill a penalty and gets a shorthanded goal for us. Andreas Johnsson hadn’t been killing. These are two guys that in my time with the Marlies were real difference makers. We gave them the chance and I think both guys did well on it. Those are the types of things I’m hoping can benefit us.
In which ways, if any at all, do you believe you are going to have to coach differently in the NHL compared to the AHL? What challenges will the NHL offer you that you didn’t see in the A?
Keefe: The challenge is going to be that there are a lot of differences. The schedule being what it is, there is less practice time, more games, more travel. Playing against more teams, you don’t know your opponents nearly as well as you do in the American league when you only play half the teams. You play in your division for the most part against seven or eight teams. That is really your focus. Those are the types of challenges that I will have.
As I am here longer, more things will come up, but everything is just better. The players are better. The coaches are better. The officiating and some of the rules and the coaches challenges — all of those types of things are new and different, but I have got a great staff around me. They’ve got experience in those areas and I’ll lean on that. We have players who have experience, too. That’s going to be a big thing: I’ll be leaning on those guys and their perspective and their thoughts and their experience. Hopefully, it will enable me to fill those gaps quickly.
You have experience with Kasimir Kaskisuo. Is he a guy that you have trust in at the AHL level and you’re going to be looking to try to get him in in maybe a different situation than back-to-back, or have you laid out and chatted with Steve Briere how you are going to play Frederik Andersen and the backup?
Keefe: Yeah, we haven’t talked about that yet. It’s not really on the front burner on this trip here. It is not something we are concerned with. It is a conversation we will have in terms of how that can work out. As the schedule kind of get going, we do have a back-to-back next week with Buffalo. We will talk about these kinds of things as the season gets going. I don’t have any real determinations right now in terms of what we want to do there, but I will get the information and try to do what is best for everybody involved. Obviously, the performance and the results on back-to-backs is something that needs some consideration. We need to make sure we make the appropriate plan.
Kyle Dubas, in particular, has offered this open for you. He’s known you for quite some time and gave you the chance in the OHL and the American Hockey League. How comforting is that for you to step behind the bench in the NHL knowing that Kyle Dubas is your GM?
Keefe: It is very comforting. Of course, you know what to expect or what the expectations are and what the goals are when you come into the rink every day. You have that trust and that relationship to be able to have real honest discussions for feedback both positive and constructive. That feels really good.
More than that, throughout the entire organization, the relationships I have built with different people and the time I’ve had to interact with Brendan Shanahan and knowing that there is full alignment there with his vision — not just with Kyle, but there is a reason why Kyle was brought in by Brendan in terms of what his vision is. I think all things are really aligned and that gives me the confidence to go out and coach every day — that I can go out and do what is best for the entire group and that we can work together to make adjustments along the way as needed.