12 things Devils fans should know about new coach Sheldon Keefe

Sheldon Keefe. (Getty Images)

Turns out, after Sheldon Keefe bid his classy lakeside adieu to Leafs Nation, he didn’t simply hop on a Jet Ski and speed off into a two-year paid vacation.

No one would’ve blamed the man if he had.

But, alas, the offer and the opportunity to become the next head coach of the New Jersey Devils was too good to pass up.

“Sheldon jumped to the top of my list when he became available, and I was thrilled when he agreed to be a part of what we are building here,” GM Tom Fitzgerald said in a statement sent out by the team Thursday morning.

Keefe, 43, is young — second-youngest among all NHL bench bosses — and hungry, and has a perfect track record of making the NHL playoffs. Five-for-five.

Unlike, say, the openings in San Jose or Seattle, the Jersey gig offers great odds for an immediate bounce-back season in 2024-25. A few more saves (Fitzgerald is going to revisit the goalie market, right?), and the team with the league’s third-worst save percentage in 2023-24 should be able to qualify for the playoffs under Keefe. The Metropolitan is top-heavy but hardly deep.

And while Keefe could have been tempted to take a breather and spend more time with his wife and young sons, Fitzgerald reportedly offered him more money and more term: four years in total, same as Toronto gave Keefe’s successor, Craig Berube.

In an industry with only 32 hotly coveted jobs — and with qualified coaches Gerard Gallant, Claude Julien, Jay Woodcroft, Joel Quenneville and Todd McLellan refreshing their CVs on the sidelines — you take that security.

“This is an exciting time,” Keefe said in Thursday’s press release. “To have the chance to lead this young, dynamic team and to see the potential that can still be unlocked is all very attractive for me … (and) this was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down.”

Keefe’s new deal gets the Maple Leafs off the hook for his old one and frees up some dough in MLSE’s coaching bucket to go out and hire Berube a new assistant coach or two.

(Is it a coincidence that rumoured Leafs power-play target Marc Savard parted ways with the Calgary Flames on the same day as Keefe’s deal with the Devils?)

What will be fascinating to see play out is how Keefe fares on his second go-round.

“He is an excellent communicator, believes in collaboration, and will take what he has learned previously to make this team a Stanley Cup contender,” said Fitzgerald, who will formally introduce Keefe at Prudential Center on Tuesday.

Here are some quick thoughts on what New Jersey and its fans might expect from the Keefe era:

• A hot start: When Keefe took the Maple Leafs’ helm in November 2019, the team burst on 14-5-1 run, the most successful first 20 games of any coach in Toronto’s 107-year-old history.

• Regular-season consistency: Keefe led the Leafs to a franchise-record 54 wins in 2021-22, three 100-point campaigns and five top-three divisional finishes. Seldom did a losing skid stretch beyond three or four games. The man coaches to win every single night and will act swiftly to get his players back on track.

• Improved accountability: When trumpeting Berube’s standard for accountability this week, Leafs GM Brad Treliving went out of his way to explain that didn’t mean Keefe did not hold his players to task. He snuffed out David Kämpf’s ironman streak with a healthy scratch this past season due to a bad O-zone decision and dropped captain John Tavares to the third line for a spell.

• Tons of video and data: New Jersey is an organization with a trusted analytics department. To that end, this coaching hire makes for a smart fit. A diligent student of the game, Keefe will be able to spout off where tonight’s opponent ranks in slot passes and offence generated by its blueline. He does his homework, learns his enemy inside and out. The counterargument here is that perhaps he places too much focus on the other guys, and not enough emphasis on imposing his team’s identity on the game.

• Special attention for offensive stars: Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt should get every opportunity to thrive. Keefe is a master at maximizing O-zone starts and bump-up shifts for his elite talent after TV timeouts and penalty kills. He wants his team to score four or more goals.

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Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner hardly played an even-strength shift together under Mike Babcock. That changed immediately under Keefe, who also spiked his stars’ ice time in general. Matthews likes playing with Michael Bunting? Or Max Domi? Well, throw them together. Keep him happy and scoring.

• Dismissal of overtime and shootout results: Keefe views everything after 60 minutes as a skills contest. He’s a firm believer in 5-on-5 results and metrics. He won’t roast his group for losing bonus points at 3-on-3.

• Constant tinkering: This can be a double-edged sword. Keefe’s patience with an ill fit like Nick Ritchie, who bounced all over the lineup until he bounced out of town, became a punchline. But his patience with Tyler Bertuzzi paid off with a superb second half.

• Willingness to work with individuals: If Keefe identifies a useful piece, he can get more out of him. William Nylander is the best example. Keefe used every trick in the book to get the best hockey out of Nylander, and it paid off for both men. Literally.

• Press-conference savvy: In media-rich Toronto, Keefe would always speak after his players; he wanted to know how they answered their questions. Considering the volume of availabilities, he seldom made headlines and would offer thoughtful responses to legitimate questions. Jersey reporters should appreciate the working relationship.

• A hot temper with refs — in-game only: Twice Keefe got slapped with $25,000 fines for letting the stripes have it with his loud opinions from the bench. That said, he was careful not to let his criticism of calls spill out from the post-game podium.

• Good company man: When Keefe disagreed with the decisions of Treliving (or Kyle Dubas before him), he was smart and careful to keep any behind-the-scenes friction quiet. He is a collaborator who often speaks in the “we.”

• Playoff baggage: For all of Keefe’s attributes, the great qualifier is his dismal 1-5 record in post-season series. He’s lost multiple rounds when holding home-ice advantage, series leads and the better on-paper roster. Ultimately, his lack of springtime results led to his firing. No doubt, it will fuel him to flip his own narrative in New Jersey.

“With experience, I would like to think you improve,” Keefe said earlier this month. “Before I coached in the NHL, I coached in the playoffs a lot at various levels. No matter what level you are at, the curveballs, the ups, the downs and the emotional swings don’t change. That is the reality of the playoffs. It is the most exciting part. You are on top of the world on one shift, period, or game. On the next, you are searching for answers. It is kind of the way it goes.

“If anything, over time and with experience, you recognize that the most important thing is to stay even-keeled, continue to believe in your team, and help them find ways to win.”

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