The Maple Leafs held an optional skate at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday.
Sheldon Keefe coached his 100th regular-season game behind the Maple Leafs bench on Thursday night. The team is 61-28-11 since Keefe replaced Mike Babcock on Nov. 20, 2019. That .665 points percentage ranks fifth in the NHL in that stretch behind only Tampa Bay, Boston, Vegas and Colorado.
"The guys respond to him and that's big," said forward Alex Kerfoot. "Having a team that wants to play for the coach [is important] and we definitely want to play for him ... He's able to communicate to people very well on a personal level and through the team."
Kerfoot credits Keefe for being innovative with his puck-possession system.
"There's certain face-off things that we'll try at times that I've never seen before," the Harvard product adds.
Keefe certainly isn't afraid to mix things up and experiment. He says that's a byproduct of his road to this point, which included stops in the Ontario Hockey League with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies.
"My path is one that's been about development and about growth," Keefe said. "As I've come out of Junior A hockey, there's a lot out there to learn and you have to be willing to be uncomfortable and look inside the game, look outside the game to learn, educate yourself, and then be open to new ideas and new concepts."
It's not easy to start your NHL coaching career in a big market like Toronto with a team that has big expectations, but Keefe has enjoyed success by keeping an open mind.
"It's really just a mindset that you don't have all the answers and that it's okay and natural to not have all the answers," the 40-year-old explained. "In fact, I think that's an endearing quality in people ... is that they don't have all the answers and that's okay. They're either working hard themselves to find the answers and solutions or you're relying upon others and their skill-sets and their expertise and their knowledge to give you the answers, and trusting the people that you work with ... You have to empower others to show and utilize the skills that they have and that they've developed."
It was 10 years ago today that Keefe's Pembroke Lumber Kings claimed the national Junior A championship. To commemorate that anniversary, Ottawa's Algonquin College announced that Keefe will receive an honorary degree at their June convocation ceremony.
"It's an incredible honour," Keefe said. "My connection to the city of Pembroke and the Lumber Kings and the Ottawa Valley, in general, is a very strong one. I certainly wouldn't be here today without the support of that community. Algonquin College is a real pillar in the community itself and represents a lot of things that the Ottawa Valley stands for. For them to offer this to me is a great thing. I'm incredibly grateful."
Algonquin College is proud to announce that the Toronto @MapleLeafs' head coach, @SheldonKeefe, will be awarded with an Honorary Degree in recognition of his on-ice and community accomplishments at its June convocation ceremony. Learn more: https://t.co/QWeFYCd46l pic.twitter.com/fzVsRpx1wg— Algonquin College (@AlgonquinColleg) May 8, 2021
Earlier this week, Keefe had high praise for defenceman T.J. Brodie.
"He's Mr. Consistent," the coach said. "He just goes about his business, consistent in his emotions and his energy, and consistent in his play. He's just out there to do his job and do it effectively. The way he moves the puck, the way he defends and breaks up plays, he does a lot of little things extremely well that help our team go."
Brodie certainly isn't flashy. He only has one goal and 14 points despite playing behind the high-octane Leafs forwards. But Brodie owns the highest on-ice goals-for percentage (67.9) at 5-on-5 among Leafs defencemen. And his partner, Morgan Rielly, leads all Leafs defencemen with 34 points.
Rielly loves jumping up in the rush and has benefited from Brodie's reliable play.
"One of the most challenging things about playing at this level is just being good every night," Rielly said. "And, over the course of a year, especially like this year where it’s been a bit more condensed, it can be challenging, whether you're batting an injury or just fatigue, but he's able to do it. It’s not easy. He’s been doing it for a long time. It’s not just this year. It’s extremely impressive and I’ve been fortunate to play with a guy like that."
Brodie seems unflappable. He absorbed a Corey Perry punch on Thursday night and didn't take the bait.
"I've battled against him for a while now," Brodie noted of the agitating Habs winger. "You just know what type of player he is. He'll go to the dirty areas and he's not afraid to try to draw a penalty and do whatever it takes to get that penalty and you got to be aware of that and try not to get sucked in."
Brodie has only taken five minor penalties this season, which is the fewest among Toronto's defencemen.
Perry didn't like that Brodie was playing defence and punched him pic.twitter.com/JxJdfJIDv0— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 7, 2021
Even in his media sessions, Brodie is even keel. However, there is one topic that gets him fired up.
"He loves Chatham probably more than anyone else," Rielly revealed. "He could be the mayor of Chatham."
Brodie breaks into a grin when informed of Rielly's comment.
"It will always be home," the 30-year-old said of the city in southwestern Ontario. "You can’t change who you grew up with. The people that have been around me the whole way and the support that I've gotten from them, it’s just a great place to grow up."
The Leafs can clinch top spot in the North Division with one more point or one more loss by the Edmonton Oilers, but the big focus right now is simply staying sharp.
"We just want to be in a good place going into the playoffs," Rielly said. "Mentally, physically, we just want to feel good and I think that comes with working hard and playing like we did [Thursday]. The win is great, but I think there's some things we can be proud of and if we're able to execute like that again [today] and then in Ottawa and Winnipeg it just builds confidence and makes guys feel good going to the playoffs."
The Leafs haven't finished first in their division since the 1999-2000 season.
Nick Foligno skated for a second straight day as he works his way back from an upper-body injury.
Projected Leafs lines for Saturday's game:
Thornton - Matthews - Marner
Galchenyuk - Tavares - Nylander
Engvall - Kerfoot - Mikheyev
Simmonds - Brooks - Spezza
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Hutton - Dermott