Maple Leafs aim to develop elite NHL coach in AHL

Of the seven Canadian NHL teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs have proved the most disappointing this season, with Edmonton winning the Connor McDavid sweepstakes. But there doesn't seem to be much hurry by Shanahan to make a big move yet.

The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t just trying to draft and develop the next wave of elite NHL players. They’re looking to groom the next Jon Cooper, too.

Tuesday’s decision to overhaul the Marlies AHL coaching staff — Gord Dinnen and assistant Ben Simon were offered other positions in the organization, while assistant Derek King was let go — came from a desire to get younger behind the bench.

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With the NHL having instituted a system where teams must pay a third-round draft pick as compensation to hire a coach from another organization and up to a second-rounder for an executive, the Leafs are actively trying to produce the kind of people who will be in demand for those positions.

So changes were made even after a season where the Marlies rallied from a slow start to make the playoffs. The 52-year-old Dineen will have a chance to stay on as an associate coach under his successor, but that person is almost certain to be much younger.

“There’s strong incentive for organizations in the NHL now to develop elite coaches from within,” assistant general manager Kyle Dubas said on a conference call. “It’s an incentive and a compensation system whereby we’re grooming our own coaches — that goes from (ECHL) Orlando to the Marlies and all the way to the 29 other NHL clubs — we hope that we’re developing people that teams pay us draft picks to one day hire. …

“You look at the coaches that have been in that realm recently and they’re all younger, elite coaches that find their way up.”

Cooper is the most obvious example. He’s only five years removed from coaching in the USHL, but has guided the Tampa Bay Lightning to consecutive 100-point seasons and currently has his team in the Eastern Conference final.

The most likely man to end up with the Marlies job is Sheldon Keefe, who Dubas first hired when he was with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Dubas acknowledged that he received permission from the Greyhounds to speak with the 34-year-old Keefe on Monday, but indicated the search would extend beyond that.

“I will discuss it with Sheldon, but he’s not the only coach we’ll discuss it with,” said Dubas. “We’re in the process of seeking permission elsewhere.”

The Leafs organization has undergone a tremendous amount of upheaval since Brendan Shanahan was hired as president in April 2014. Gone since then are the entire front office, NHL coaching staff, AHL coaching staff and a majority of the scouts.

Dubas declined to comment on the current search for a new NHL general manager and coaching staff.

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The decision to shake things up with the Marlies came after weeks of “thorough debate and discussion and analysis” between Dubas, Shanahan and director of player personnel Mark Hunter in the wake of a first-round loss to Grand Rapids.

The organization finally seems committed to a complete rebuild. They’ve adopted a patient philosophy built around grooming their own people — and that extends beyond the playing surface. 

“We’re developing people,” said Dubas. “(We want) to become an elite developer of hockey in general. That includes players, on-ice product and strategy, coaches, managers, et cetera.”

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