Why the Maple Leafs chose Sheldon Keefe — it’s more than you think

Justin Bourne gives insight into what the Toronto Maple Leafs will be getting with Sheldon Keefe as a head coach.

It was never a matter of who.

It was only a matter of when.

On Wednesday, Sheldon Keefe became the 31st head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the first selected by general manager Kyle Dubas, who’s also the first NHL GM to fire Mike Babcock.

Keefe has always been Dubas’s guy, patiently biding his time with the American Hockey League’s most expensive outfit and turning down other opportunities for career advancement.

He had the feeling that one day he and Dubas might try to do in the NHL what they’d already accomplished in the AHL and OHL: embark on the type of long playoff runs that bind for life.

“Working with Sheldon in the Soo and in Toronto, he and I would have some blowups in the coaches’ room after [games],” Dubas said at a speaking engagement earlier this year.

“You get to a point in a working relationship where you can get into a massive blowup [while] you’re trying to help with whatever you’re doing at the time.”

Under Dubas, what Keefe will now be doing is trying to steer the latest, fastest, priciest, most talented version of the Maple Leafs’ 18-wheeler off sparking, screeching guardrails and back on the highway to glory.

As forced as the hands of Dubas and club president Brendan Shanahan were by the players’ uninspired effort over this six-game losing stretch (and, really, for the bulk of the team’s 23 games), it’s now Keefe’s palms on the wheel.

“It’s human nature that people are going to have conflict, that they’re going to think about things differently and approach things differently,” Keefe once told us about his cards-on-the-table rapport with Dubas.

“It’s so healthy and necessary to have those relationships. You don’t want [the arguments] to escalate, but you want enough depth and understanding [so] that you know the next morning, or even the next hour, you’ll be thinking a lot clearer, or you can understand where people are coming from.

“It helps you make more informed and better decisions.”

It’s no wonder the NHL interview offers came in for Keefe last summer. His minor-league resume is sparkling. With him at the helm, the Marlies amassed a 199-89-22-9 record, twice were the AHL’s best regular-season squad, won nine playoff rounds over four springs (including five sweeps), and brought the first professional hockey championship to Toronto in 51 years when they captured the 2018 Calder Cup.

As the focus now moves to Dubas, the GM is leaning on a man he’s long trusted — the same man who oversaw five consecutive CCHL championships at the helm of the Pembroke Lumber Kings (2007-2011) before he graduated from Dubas’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds with an impressive 98-29-2-7 record.

“I think Sheldon’s earned it,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan told reporters in Arizona.

“If you look at Sheldon’s track record — the amount of players on the Toronto Maple Leafs who’ve played for Sheldon with the Marlies, the job he’s done in developing players for us that were some early-round draft picks, some late-round draft picks. He’s had success basically everywhere he’s coached.”

Keefe is the type of person Mike Babcock would describe as a serial winner.

He has sipped championship champagne from the same mug as current Leafs Andreas Johnsson, Justin Holl, Trevor Moore, Frederik Gauthier, Dmytro Timashov, Travis Dermott and Martin Marincin.

In other years, he’s coached William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen, Nic Petan, Pierre Engvall and Kasimir Kaskisuo.

They know him. They like him. But can they win with a mid-season call-up — and turn this dismal .478 campaign around?

Hey, the Penguins did it in 2017, and the Blues last spring. But both Mike Sullivan and Craig Berube had some big-league experience.

In an interview after a Marlies practice, Keefe said he didn’t want to be an assistant, that he believed his skills and knowledge were strong enough to jump directly to being an NHL bench boss.

“Not unlike the players that are here, I want to be part of the highest level as well,” he said. “I know that everything I do every day is about making this team better. It’s also about making myself better.”

The 39-year-old has never failed to qualify for the post-season as a coach. He’s also never failed to win at least one round with any club he’s led from the beginning of camp.

“He understands that you have to be creative, so he lets us be creative. That’s fun,” Marlies blue-liner Timothy Liljegren said. “But he can be hard on you, too. You have to push every day. It’s a good environment for young guys to be in.”

Keefe says he’s learned how critical communication with players is for coaches.

That hit home during his first season in Toronto, and he devoted the following summer to reading books on the topic, speaking with coaches from other sports and attending conferences. Having finished his pro career in ’04, Keefe needed to improve his own tools to get through to young athletes, so he studied other professionals.

“I feel like you’re so entrenched in [the hockey world], that in order to really grow, you’ve got to look at different experiences and streams of information,” Keefe said.

“You can never assume players understand your message or understand what you’re thinking. You have to make them understand. Spend time with them. Explain your perspective. Learning how vital that is and having those relationships with players individually — that is the biggest challenge in coaching today, managing that day to day. I don’t do it perfectly, but it’s something I try to think about as often as I can.”

It’s no secret the relationships between Babcock and Dubas, and Babcock and some players, had frayed.

Keefe comes in fresh, but he’s never seen scrutiny like this.

“I’m happy with the path that I’m on and the experiences I’ve gained, mainly because of the little taste I’ve gotten of the NHL, from being part of four NHL training camps and the working relationship I have with Mike Babcock and his coaching staff there,” Keefe said, prior to Wednesday’s earthquaking headline.

“It is the best league in the world, and you want to be a part of that.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.