TORONTO – When word emerged that recently fired Maple Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock had tried to motivate then-rookie Mitch Marner by soliciting, and then sharing, his ranking of the team's hardest-working players in 2016-17, it raised questions about the tactics coaches are willing to use to get the most out of their players.
For Toronto's new head coach Sheldon Keefe, now just two games into his NHL career, that process has always been rooted in a willingness to evolve.
“There has been a lot of change in that regard,” Keefe acknowledged of player-coach relationships after the Leafs’ practice on Tuesday. “I try to deal more directly [with guys] and deal more in a positive nature as much as possible. I think players respond well to that. I try to be constructive, but every situation is different. Every situation calls for something different. Any time you can adapt to whatever that player or that situation calls for is what I’m looking to do.”
Adaptation has been the name of the game for Keefe since he was named the 31st head coach in franchise history last Wednesday, on the same day that Babcock was relieved of his duties after four and a half seasons.
In quick succession, Keefe made his NHL coaching debut with a win over Arizona on Thursday, got one practice in with his new team on Friday, and then coached Toronto to a victory over Colorado on Saturday.
That early success was a boost for the lagging Leafs, as was coming home to a pair of practice days on Monday and Tuesday. It’s given Keefe a chance to get to know his players a bit better start really implementing his systems.
Keefe coached a dozen players currently on Toronto’s roster during his four-year tenure as head coach of the Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate Toronto Marlies, but just as his philosophy surrounding player-coach interactions has evolved, so too must his previous relationships.
“I'm fortunate that I do have some time spent with a good number of the players here, but just to rely on that would be not very good for me,” he said. “A lot has changed. The players are older, they’re more mature, and their lot in life is different than when they were playing for the Marlies. So I've got to re-establish those things and that’s what I am trying to do here, one day at a time and one player at a time.”
While Babcock would come out right for the start of practice and leave immediately when it ended, Keefe has taken to engaging with multiple players in long conversations before and after each session.
That willingness to constantly communicate lines up with feedback former Marlies shared about Keefe with teammates being coached by him for the first time.
“The first 12 hours [after he was hired], there was a lot of questions going [to Keefe’s old players],” said Morgan Rielly. “Just about him, about his personality, about his style. And since he's been here he’s been pretty transparent with us and it’s been great. It hasn't been tough to get a read on him or anything. He’s been very open and we’ve had some great meetings and we know how the ship is going to be run.”
Keefe admitted at this point he’s still trying to strike the right balance between preserving the Leafs’ energy partway through their regular season and presenting new information as much as possible. But there’s no denying time is of the essence for him, not only in relationship building, but in getting Toronto back into playoff contention.
Through 25 games, the Leafs have an 11-10-4 record, and sit fourth in the NHL’s wild-card standings. It’s Keefe’s job to lead a climb up the standings, starting with three games against Atlantic Division opponents in the next four nights.
“Our meetings have been a little bit longer, and we’ve covered more than we normally would like to, we've asked a little bit more of the players in that sense,” Keefe said. We’re asking a little bit more, but we're happy with what we’ve done and we’ve tried to really not try to fix everything all at once.”
Whatever Keefe has done in the small sample size to date, his players seem pleased to keep rallying around the coach's message.
“It's obviously not ideal [to swap coaches mid-season],” said captain John Tavares, "but I think he's just got a lot of calmness to him. I think he’s very direct and understanding of what he wants, and also I think he just wants everyone feeling good about themselves and really trying to portray that through himself to guys individually into the group. So he’s been excellent so far.”