Kyle Dubas recognizes that one of the Toronto Maple Leafs prospects with the greatest potential for upward mobility right now is the man standing behind the bench in the American Hockey League.
It seems like only a matter of time before the NHL comes calling for Sheldon Keefe.
“Oh yeah. Yeah. I don’t think at this point you would find anyone who would probably doubt that,” Dubas said Tuesday night, after finalizing a two-year extension with Keefe to remain Marlies head coach.
“He’s earned the right through the team success and through the development of players to certainly be considered … for any [NHL] opening. I’m very happy for him, for that, and I think he certainly is right in that mix now.”
That’s why the Leafs general manager felt so good about keeping Keefe inside the organization during a critical period where player development will take on even greater importance with the draft picks being made later and the salary cap squeeze being felt tighter.
As natural as it seems from afar to view Keefe as Mike Babcock’s eventual successor behind the Leafs bench, that presupposes the answers to a couple questions that can’t possibly be known today:
1. How much success will the NHL team have next season in what is clearly a ‘take-a-step-forward-or-else’ campaign following three consecutive first-round exits under Babcock?
2. What kind of outside opportunities will be presented to Keefe?
There’s certainly no guarantee the timing will align for him in Toronto, especially since Dubas doesn’t view the new two-year contract as an ironclad promise Keefe will remain with the Marlies through spring 2021.
“If there’s an upward move for anybody in our organization, I think we would never stand in their way and hold them back,” he said. “This contract isn’t really done to prevent that or anything of that nature. It’s just with them playing late [in the playoffs] again and a lot of the [NHL] jobs closing already, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword for Sheldon in that way.
“You know, if there were an upward move that people wanted to talk to him about and that he wanted to explore, he’s earned that. We would never stand in his way.”
One thing that was never really contemplated in a serious way by Leafs management this spring was having Keefe join Babcock’s evolving staff for next season. Assistants D.J. Smith and Jim Hiller have moved on, with Paul McFarland already hired to fill one of those openings, but Dubas didn’t even speak with Keefe about potentially filling the other.
“With the Marlies just being done, we haven’t really had any discussions about that,” he said. “I think in knowing Sheldon … it’s been very clear that his preference has been to remain as a head coach rather than moving to any assistant jobs. That’s always been consistent with him.”
Speaking with reporters at the Marlies locker cleanout availability on Tuesday, Keefe called his post “the best job outside of the NHL.”
“I recognize just how much of a privilege it is,” he added.
The 38-year-old has compiled remarkable numbers during his four years in charge of the Marlies, not to mention the two seasons he spent working under Dubas with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds before that.
In the AHL, Keefe’s teams have a combined winning percentage of .668 and appeared in 12 playoff series. They’ve also graduated several players to the Leafs during that period and remained highly competitive in the process.
“[They’ve] done a great job of building the exact culture we want at that level of our organization, which is that the players are maximizing their potential, which is excellent, but also they’re getting used to playing hockey deep into the spring,” said Dubas. “At the very least, it’s been mid-May that they’ve played to, and that would be the earliest the team’s ever been done.”
The GM just witnessed some of Keefe’s best work in a season that ended Sunday with a double-overtime loss to Charlotte in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. That was much farther than many expected the Marlies to go in a year where they were defending the Calder Cup, but had to weather all kinds of storms along the way.
Dubas pointed to the loss of goalies Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers right before the season, which was a huge blow to the organizational depth at that position. He also cited the trade of Carl Grundstrom as part of the Jake Muzzin deal with Los Angeles, the fact Sam Gagner bounced back and forth a couple times on loan from Vancouver, numerous injuries to key contributors and the absence of players who made the jump to the Leafs.
“I think this year more than ever, I was very proud of the way the veteran players on the team and the coaching staff were able to find their way through the season,” said Dubas. “They didn’t make any excuses, they were able to forge their own identity and find a way to become very competitive. Go from a team well outside the playoff picture to the conference final and it allowed for some huge growth among some of our top young prospects in particular and I think the credit for that has to be spread around, but with Sheldon and [Marlies GM] Laurence [Gilman] sort of guiding it, I think they deserve a lot of credit with the coaching staff, our development staff and the leadership of the group.
“It was fun to see, especially some of the younger players evolve into leaders themselves.”
It was the kind of season that further cemented Keefe’s credentials as a future NHL coach.
All he’s waiting for now is the call-up.