TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe was asked why the Toronto Maple Leafs seem so invigorated after just five days under a new head coach.
What’s he done to change things?
“Well, I think it’s just a different voice, in this case,” Keefe said Monday after conducting a practice that bore no resemblance to anything his predecessor, Mike Babcock, ever put the team through.
This is by design, of course.
It can be found in the early pages of “Coaching 101,” and applies especially in cases where you’ve been hired to replace a taskmaster. That’s what Babcock was here to do in Toronto and what he was in every other stop from Spokane to Cincinnati to Detroit.
That’s what Leafs management so desperately wanted back in 2015 – remember, back when they had more character issues in their dressing room than high-end talent.
Babcock was lured here on the largest coaching contract in NHL history to bring order and structure during a thinly disguised tank. “There’s pain coming,” he said, famously, and he wasn’t lying.
That included missteps with the young stars who began to turn the program around. One of those was a particularly eye-opening encounter brought to light by Terry Koshan of The Toronto Sun, who reported Sunday that Babcock asked Mitch Marner during his rookie season to make an ordered list of teammates from hardest- to least-hardest working.
The coach then shared that list with a couple players ranked at the bottom.
It’s an incident Babcock told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman he apologized to Marner for at the time — “I was trying to focus on work ethic with Mitch — focusing on role models — ended up not being a good idea,” he texted Monday — and it’s a window for those of us a step removed from the team dynamic to better understand why the players might have been chafing under his hard-driving style.
As unsavoury as that story is, Babcock’s coaching methods had some effect. The Leafs went from 69 points to 95 to 105 to 100 under his watch, and could have beaten the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs last spring.
He was fired last week only when it became apparent to management that he wasn’t the right guy to get this group to another level. Not only did he have a fractured relationship with general manager Kyle Dubas, but there was a feeling inside the organization that his message had worn thin with the players.
“I just think that certainly from a player’s perspective, you can see the frustration in their eyes,” said president Brendan Shanahan, when Keefe was formally introduced as Babcock’s replacement. “I really thought even in our last game that the players were working really hard, but there was sort of a belief missing in them.
“When things are going poorly like that, a lot of things are running through your mind during the hockey game and you could almost see it in their faces.”
The mood flipped the moment Keefe walked through the door, aided no doubt by wins at Arizona and Colorado to begin his tenure.
But the 39-year-old has also played this perfectly. He’s talked of restoring the “spirit of the team,” and gone out of his way to build up any battered individuals. That meant bigger roles for Tyson Barrie and Jason Spezza, and a spot in the lineup for Nick Shore in his hometown of Denver after being scratched two nights earlier.
He also prizes puck possession above all else and is telling his young stars to take calculated risks in the offensive zone. That’s music to the ears of Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and everyone else that grew tired of long stretch passes to nowhere.
“We want to be a team that’s thriving and we want an environment that’s vibrant,” Keefe said. “So we’re kind of trying to work on those consistently, doing the things that as a staff we can control to set the environment.
“Then it’s just through how we communicate with our players and how we handle them and how we handle our scheduling and our practices and all those types of things and keep it a situation where players are engaged.”
In his first practice session here at home, Keefe used two sheets of ice simultaneously and involved several members of the organization’s player development staff.
Darryl Belfry put the defencemen through a skills session where they worked on holding the puck and taking time before sending it up ice. The forwards devoted time to the cycle and strategies to developing scoring chances from the slot.
The new coach wants his players to get used to holding the puck for an extra split second while teammates work to find good ice for a pass. They don’t ever want to surrender possession needlessly.
“I mean we want our players to be thriving and using the skills that they have,” Keefe said.
Even though 13 members of the team have played for him previously while with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, this is all new for the other half of the roster. Big-minute guys like Matthews, Morgan Rielly and captain John Tavares.
That’s why it feels like Keefe’s opened the dressing room doors and let some fresh air in.
“I think the fact that we’ve tried to tap into the offensive abilities of the players, and pairing that with the needs that we have for them defensively, I think is bringing a little more excitement and perhaps a little more willingness to give a little extra on the defensive side of it because they know they’re getting some freedom offensively to go,” said Keefe. “But also knowing that part of our defensive plan is to be good with the puck and on offence and that suits the group very well, I believe.”
A new coach for a new time.
And a new approach, by necessity.