One year ago today, the Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock. The club was mired in a six-game winless streak (0-5-1) and sitting outside the playoff picture with a 9-10-4 record overall.
A team with championship aspirations handed the keys to Sheldon Keefe, who had guided the Toronto Marlies to an AHL Calder Cup title in 2018. Keefe hopped on a plane to join the Leafs in Arizona where they were in the middle of a Western Conference road swing.
"A whole lot of excitement," Keefe recalled of that day. "It was just a whirlwind, really. That whole experience of getting the call and getting everything done and then making the travel arrangements and then before you know it you're at the airport and on a plane. And then you land in Arizona, of all places, which has a very special place in my heart with my wife being from there. There was just a lot of work to be done in a short amount of time."
Keefe guided the Leafs to a 3-1 win against the Coyotes the next night.
"Felt really comfortable," he said. "The puck is dropped and the first few shifts you're adjusting a bit to the speed and execution of things being higher, of course, than what you're accustomed to in the American League and just the building itself being bigger and all those types of things, but it was a great game. The players responded very well. It capped off what was a great experience for myself and the whole family."
With Keefe behind the bench, the Leafs went 27-15-5 before the regular season was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The .628 points percentage in that stretch ranked eighth in the National Hockey League and offered optimism for what the Keefe era could bring.
But some ugly off nights and then a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the qualifying round in the Toronto bubble created more questions about the makeup of the team.
Keefe, who turned 40 in September, spoke to TSN this week to reflect on his first year at the helm and look ahead to the 2020-21 season. He offered insight on how free-agent acquisitions T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian and Joe Thornton will bolster the team, and also explained what the next step looks like for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
What's the biggest thing you learned last season that will help you moving forward?
"The biggest thing is I really learned to just trust myself. You're adjusting to the NHL and you're expecting all these new things to come your way, but the more I experienced, the more I realized I've been in a lot of these situations before at various levels and the scenarios are very, very similar. The people are a little bit different and the competition, of course, is far greater. The attention that everything we're doing gets is far different, I recognize that, but when I'm in my office and working with our coaching staff or I'm talking to the players it feels like very similar conversations."
During your media availability on the day of the draft, you mentioned that standards will be higher moving forward. What standards are you setting for the group?
"We need to recognize that we have to do everything better. We have more to give in every area of the game. We need to create a standard of consistency, most importantly, and in order to do that we've got to start at Day 1 of training camp. Well, I guess you could even say it starts with the off-season. The players have been putting in a lot of great work here. In just following up with the strength coaches, everybody's been very happy with the efforts that have been put forth. But right from training camp, the exhibition [games] if we’re going to have any, into the regular season, and all the way through, the standards of what we expect, we can't have any lulls in that. You're going to have bad days, but the standards of effort and competitiveness have to be there consistently."
It's been a busy off-season for general manager Kyle Dubas and the management team, and I want to get your perspective on some of the new recruits. T.J. Brodie is the big signing on defence. Who do you see him slotting in beside to start?
"You'll have to stay tuned for that one. With T.J. and all of our signings, we've really increased our depth in all positions and that gives us a lot of great options. Clearly, T.J. has established himself as a player that can fit in and play with top players and against top competition and that's obviously a big need for us, so we felt really good about adding him."
What does Zach Bogosian bring?
"A guy with a great deal of experience and perhaps the most valuable experience, given what he's just gone through in adjusting to a new team, finding his place in a new team and ultimately being a part of a team that was trying to find its way and get over its own humps to win a championship in Tampa Bay. He's going to bring a lot not only on the ice, but in the locker room as well. He's got great energy about him."
You will be coaching Joe Thornton, who's a year older than you. How do you plan to use him initially? Do you see him as the third-line centre?
"Again, you're going to have to stay tuned. A very versatile guy that we think can play anywhere in our lineup depending on what we need or what's happening. With him coming here he's going to be an important piece of our team. He's coming here for a reason and we're bringing him for a reason. We're really excited to bring in somebody with his experience, his energy and the passion that he still has for the game. So, no matter where he plays he's going to bring a lot to us and we're excited about that and I know our players are as well."
Dubas mentioned that Thornton is such a great playmaker and you have some tremendous goal scorers so it's a good fit in that respect. I guess it's tempting to put him up with guys like Matthews and John Tavares. Is it fair to say we might see that a bit?
"Well, I would think if anything I've proven in my time that I'm willing to experiment and try different things, so I certainly would not count anything like that out. And through all the signings that we've made here it's given us an abundance of options and opportunities. We'll obviously have a plan coming into training camp but, you know, I wouldn't be surprised if things change frequently and we find what works best for us."
You mentioned that you aren't afraid to experiment. Jack Han, a former member of your Marlies staff, recently told the Toronto Star he wouldn't be surprised to see the Leafs try out a two-forward, three-defenceman formation. Is that something you are considering?
Is it something that you've considered in the past?
"I like to think of myself as someone who will really never say never to anything. In fact, in my time in Sault Ste. Marie we worked with that at different times when the situation called for it, such as a big defensive-zone faceoff with the goalie out. We felt we had three really strong defenders and put out three defenders and two forwards and had them play more like a penalty-kill situation with three good defenders on the back. I remember one time we had a bad injury situation when we were really short on defencemen and we went with four forwards and one defenceman throughout the game and managed that. So, I've had some experience with that. I think there's enough examples at various levels where I think that has been done, but it's not something I've given a second of thought to for this season's team."
We talk a lot about the newcomers, but so much of the team's success will depend on the core guys. You have three young forwards who have produced quite a bit in the league in Matthews, Nylander and Marner. How much room is there for those guys to grow?
"They have a great deal to grow. I don't know where it shakes out in terms of their production. The production has been fairly good, of course, especially in the regular season as they've established themselves as premier players. But I think all of our players have room to grow in all the other areas of their game in terms of the consistency away from the puck and the competitiveness in terms of their ability to bring the best out of others around them and not just be at their best. There is a responsibility, as you grow as leaders, to bring the best out of those around you and that's a big part of it ... We're a significantly older and more experienced team this season than we were last, so we're going to have greater support in that area, because I do think it requires a team of leaders. I think that will just help everybody find a whole new level."
Frederik Andersen is coming off a regular season where he had his worst save percentage as a Maple Leaf (.909) and he's also in the final year of his contract. What gives you confidence that he's going to bounce back?
"First thing is just that he's a very good goaltender. He's established himself among the top goalies in the NHL and we really believe in him. We believe we have a part to play in front of him and do a much better job, from coaching staff right on through the players. We think we'll get better there and that's going to help give him that support. Of course, having the additional depth around him that we've added to with Jack Campbell and Aaron Dell as well, that's going to help. But then, the big thing is, I know he's motivated to have that bounce back. He knows he's capable of more. He's already here in Toronto and already skating and working here in the facility. This is the earliest he's ever come in prior to the start of the season, so that's really good and really exciting."
After the Leafs-Jackets series in the summer, Columbus coach John Tortorella came to your defence. He said, "I just can't get over people ripping Sheldon Keefe and his staff. They have done a terrific job with the team … half the pundits in this city think they know the game, but they really don't." There's always going to be criticism when a team loses, and it's amplified in a city like Toronto. What did you think of Tortorella showing his support and how have you dealt with the Toronto fishbowl so far?
"Torts is very much about the fraternity of coaches and obviously he's not afraid to speak his mind if he feels like he has an opinion on something. I appreciated that, of course, and we had very brief conversations when the series ended, and we've exchanged a number of text messages and stuff and all those kinds of things as we were going through that. I appreciated that, but I don't need that. You know, I recognize the responsibility that I have and where we fell short. It's a great responsibility here to deliver for our fans and for our city and we fell short of that, so I recognize where the criticisms come from and we're looking to grow in all the areas that will help us get better. That's really my focus."