After being introduced as the new head coach in New Jersey on Tuesday, Sheldon Keefe joined TSN Overdrive to discuss his tenure in Toronto, the departure after the playoffs, and the new opportunity with the Devils.

Has Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the New Jersey Devils, sunk in for you yet? It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks.

Keefe: It has been a whirlwind. It is not quite rolling off the tongue yet, but it has been great being out here.

It is the first time our full family has come out here. My wife and I were out here a couple of weeks ago to look around and meet with some people. Each time we have been here, it has been tremendous. There are a lot of great people and great things happening in New Jersey that have led us to today.

It has been an exciting time. No question it has happened quickly. We went through all sorts of different emotions that led us to this point. It is an exciting time.

You leave Toronto, and you still have a couple of years left on your deal. You could’ve relaxed, taken a step back, and decompressed. Suddenly, it’s leaked that you are heading to New Jersey. Was it a tough decision? Did you consider taking some time off, or did you want to jump right back in because it was the right situation?

Keefe: You talk through the different emotions and decisions I was making. You get let go, and you have a pretty good sense that is what is coming. It certainly didn’t catch me off guard. I was mentally prepared for it that way.

Having two years left and uncertainty of what lies ahead, as well as a young family that is very much entrenched in the Toronto area… I have kids that are 12 and turning 14. Basically, all that they have known — certainly through their time in school and sports — has been our home there. It was something where I frankly would’ve been at ease if nothing had come about.

I was going to spend some time to myself to regroup, refresh, and spend quality time with family. I would’ve been okay with that. Certainly, going into it, there was a sense — just given how quickly things came about — that I was unsure about how to handle it. Pretty quickly — probably within just a few hours of being let go by Tre — he was calling me on the phone, and I had to make a decision about whether to answer it. It was him letting me know that Tom Fitzgerald had already reached out and was looking to contact me. That was great. Tre, through the whole thing, has been terrific.

You go through the different emotions of it. Credit to Tom. He made it very clear that I was high on his list, and he was willing to be patient. It is one thing to say that. It is another to sit back and give me ample time to process things. With each conversation I had with him, I grew more and more excited.

Ultimately, as I said, a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I came out to New Jersey. We had a chance to meet with the ownership group led by David Blitzer. He is a tremendous guy with great love for the Devils and passion for hockey and sports. With him, Josh Harris, and their group having a team in every single sport in North America, you can tell they have a real passion for what they do.

Tom Fitzgerald’s belief in me and his vision for the group and the team makes it very clear this is a great opportunity. As a hockey coach, you want to get back involved.

What will you miss about coaching in Toronto?

Keefe: Just tremendous people. That is the biggest thing. That is not to discount how much of an honour and privilege it is to coach the Maple Leafs and the great challenge that we had there. We failed to deliver a Stanley Cup, but there are tremendous people there.

After being let go — which was a first for me — the messages that you receive not just from current players but past players who have been with you and moved on to different organizations or staff members who were there… You start to get messages from people. In some cases, it’s from people who seemed like they had things they had been wanting to say to you but haven’t for whatever reason. They send you a very nice message. It gives you a true sense that you have been able to have a positive impact on them. Those things are memorable.

I have lots of love for people in the organization there, both players and staff. I wish them the absolute best when they are not playing New Jersey. Bringing some closure to it and having a chance to look ahead now to a new opportunity is exciting for me.

Do you see any similarities between the Devils and Maple Leafs rosters?

Keefe: I don’t know that there are real similarities other than to say there is a high skill level throughout the team. That would be it. The team has built itself some real high-end talent through the draft.

It is a unique opportunity and different in lots of other ways. I am excited about the mix of talent both on forward and defense and how we are going to be able to get that group connected both offensively and defensively to build something great together.

There is a lot of cap space in there and the ability to retain players for multiple years and get something sustainable and consistent. That continuity is important to build a real, true team concept. I am looking forward to getting to work at that.

You said you feel you are a better coach now than when you arrived in the NHL. Your regular season statistics in Toronto were outstanding. You have some of the greatest points percentages of all time — not only in Leafs history but in NHL history. In terms of the playoff history, how do you approach that in New Jersey, where it is a similar scenario? They are trying to get over the top. How do you learn from the playoff history in Toronto and apply it to New Jersey moving forward?

Keefe: There are lessons to be learned there. If there is anything that stands out, it is that it is hard to win in the NHL. There is no doubt about that. At the same time, you recognize how thin the margins are and how close games are. Everything matters. Details matter. The details really start in terms of how you start things in training camp from the beginning, how you build your group, and how you hold your group accountable to a high standard. All of those things are incredibly important.

I don’t question my own ability to navigate a team through the playoffs. At every level I’ve coached, I have been part of teams that have played very deep in the playoffs and won multiple championships at various levels. I don’t have any questions about my own ability to navigate through that. I have great confidence in it.

Each experience and scenario that I went through in Toronto was another one that I would add to my list. As you go through something like this, you start to reflect on what you have been through as a coach. I think I still sit as the second-youngest coach in the NHL. I have not just five years in the NHL, but I’ve coached over 1,500 hockey games at various levels. I have been through a lot. All of those sorts of things give me great confidence. Ultimately, it is a big reason why I decided to just jump back right into this and tackle the new opportunity.

A lot of love was sent your way for the video send-off you recorded. It was not just a generic note. It was from the heart. How did you choose the backdrop as opposed to something grittier? Did you put much thought into it, or were you standing on the edge of a dock and pouring your heart out?

Keefe: I had a pretty good sense of what was coming that day. I didn’t sleep much the night before. I kind of woke up in the middle of the night. I started reflecting on what is ahead and how you handle yourself going forward.

Bringing some closure to the whole situation was important to me, as was just getting my message out the way I wanted it to be without anything too performative. It was just me and my cell phone. I had a pretty good sense of what I wanted to say to bring closure to it.

Ultimately, I am incredibly grateful for how I was treated and the opportunity I had. I take responsibility for our inability to come through. That is why you force teams to make decisions like they had to.

In terms of the location, that is actually not very far from my house. That’s Lake Ontario. It is a block down to the water on the lakeshore. It is my happy place where I go to clear my head at times. I go for a walk down there. It was a pretty natural decision to head down there to shoot it. It just turned out that it happened to be a beauty of a day. It is not always so great down there. That was one of those days you want to capitalize on.

It was fitting. There are some days when I want to clear my head and get some peace and quiet. I would go for a stroll down there. That is where I headed. I went straight from my meeting with Tre to there. I had a pretty good sense of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to handle that situation.

Was it one take?

Keefe: It was two takes, and then I was ready to take off. I watched it back, and there was one piece I failed on. I headed back and got a third take done. Three takes.

If you knew it was coming, you could’ve recorded it before the meeting and fired it out right after.

Keefe: I could’ve pre-empted the whole thing, perhaps, and just skipped the meeting altogether (laughs). No, ultimately, I understood where the organization was coming from.

I have lots of love for people in the organization and how I was treated, from Larry Tanenbaum to Brendan Shanahan and all the way down the list. Brad Treliving came in and believed in me after a very exhaustive process last summer. He not only brought me back but gave me a two-year extension and showed belief in me.

Ultimately, we didn’t push through in the playoffs as we aspired to do. It leads to a decision like this. I’ll be far better for everything I have been through in Toronto. I am excited about what is ahead in New Jersey.

What kind of message do you want to put out there the first time you meet with the new team? 

Keefe: I want to make sure I am using the time in the offseason to get to know the guys and get a sense from them of where they are at. Early indications are that they are definitely not happy with last season. It is not sitting well with them. They are excited for what is ahead.

I think they felt that back in 2022-23, they had such a tremendous season and were building something great. They took a step back, which is a sign that maybe things weren’t sustainable at that time. We want to build something that is sustainable.

That is really it. If I were to send a message, it is, “Let’s get to work here.” We want something that is sustainable and gives us a chance to compete not just in the playoffs every year but a chance to win in the playoffs and get through rounds.

That is what I will spend my time doing in the offseason. It will be an exciting training camp.