TORONTO – Given how prominently Sheldon Keefe’s name has been mentioned in the NHL coaching carousel of late, it seemed natural to assume he’d be jetting off for greener pastures now that he’s helped the Toronto Marlies win the Calder Cup.
In fact, the 37-year-old told Sportsnet on Saturday afternoon that it’s his full expectation he’ll be back behind the bench of the American Hockey League champions next season. Now, his commitment comes with a caveat – he’s established a personal goal of coaching in the NHL and would have to carefully consider any opportunities at that level, be they for an assistant’s position or the head job – but Keefe doesn’t sound like he’s in a rush to take that step immediately.
"I love coaching here. I learn every day," he said as the Marlies cleaned out beer-soaked lockers. "We work with great people, great players. I love this city and I’m grateful for the opportunity that I have. I’ll just continue to work to make myself as prepared as possible for any calls that may come or that I hope may come in the future."
The New York Islanders are the only NHL team currently without a head coach and former Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello is now running the show there. He has plenty of familiarity with Keefe. There are also a handful of vacant assistant jobs still to be filled.
No rival teams had requested permission to speak with Keefe in the 48 hours since the Marlies won the Calder Cup, according to Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, but that can change with one phone call. And it wouldn’t be a surprising one to receive given the outrageous amount of success that has followed Keefe throughout his coaching career.
"He’s earned everything that comes his way next," said Dubas. "It’s been a great journey with him – however long it goes for. We’ll tackle that as it comes along and different opportunities present themselves.
"I’m so excited for him and so happy for him, that he was able to be a part of this and lead this team to the win on Thursday."
The Marlies own a 150-63-15 record in three seasons with Keefe behind the bench and won 72 per cent of the games they played this season – going 15-5 during the playoffs and finally eliminating the Texas Stars with a 6-1 victory in Game 7 of the Calder Cup final.
Dubas first hired Keefe with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League five years ago and saw evidence of growth from him at two critical points of the championship series. He’s always been considered a hard-working coach with a firm grasp on tactics and game plan, but someone with room to grow when it came to communicating with players.
"Going into Game 5 in Austin and then going into the Game 7 here after a difficult Game 6, I think if you’re looking at a coach you want to know how they’re going to handle those ups and downs, especially in the highest-pressure situations, the finals," said Dubas. "That was the best I’ve seen him. The X’s and O’s part, I’d never ever worry about with him, but seeing his evolution in his presentation to the team, his communication with the team and his leadership at those times when it’s tough – fear and doubt does creep in when you are on the road and you’re in a Game 5 and you could go down 3-2 or you’re at home, now you’re going into Game 7 after not a great loss in Game 6 – so to see the way we handled that was unbelievable.
"That was a big, big reason why we won."
It’s also a big reason why he’s being connected to jobs at the NHL level. His arrival there seems far more like a "when" rather than an "if."
Something unexpected would have to happen to see him get that opportunity in Toronto – what with the five years remaining on Mike Babcock’s monster contract and the Leafs in a position to be a contender each of those years. Any opportunity with them would likely have to come in an assistant’s role to Babcock.
Keefe played 125 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning and makes no secret of his desire to eventually coach in the NHL. That wasn’t something he could have predicted when he first went behind the bench of the Junior ‘A’ Pembroke Lumber Kings at age 25, but he’s readjusted his goals while working his way through the ranks.
"I don’t know that you can ever really say whether or not you’re ready [for the NHL]," he said. "You’re ready when someone decides you’re ready. That’s really all I can say about that. You focus every day on trying to be as good as you can and continually improve so that if or when someone decides you are ready that you are as most prepared as you possibly can be."
Given his close relationship with Dubas and the small number of job openings in mid-June, there’s reason to believe Keefe will continue on with the Marlies. He would keep wearing the label of a hot NHL coaching candidate even if that happened.
With the Calder Cup celebrations winding down, he’s looking for ways to get better rather than distributing résumés.
"The next thing for me now is to process all that happened this season and make a plan for next year," said Keefe.