How Maple Leafs’ Sheldon Keefe is jamming it to all his critics

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe stands behind the bench during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. The Maple Leafs won 5-2. (AP)

TORONTO – It wasn’t quite a month ago that Sheldon Keefe’s greatest defence came from an unlikely source, an opposing head coach.

John Tortorella rolled into town at the top of a November no one could’ve predicted the Toronto Maple Leafs would dominate and felt compelled to voice his support for a fellow bench boss. A man whose job security had been publicly questioned by fans and pundits perplexed by a pedestrian October and Keefe’s rush to expel bullets.

“He’s a terrific coach,” Tortorella asserted. “I hope he jams it to you all, quite honestly.”

Today, having gathered points in 14 of his past 15 outings and climbing to fifth overall, Sheldon Keefe’s greatest defence is, well, his team’s defence.

Keefe’s elite players’ buy-in is reaching crypto ’21 levels. A mature we-over-me culture has the club soaring through $19 million worth of injuries to the back end. And general manager Kyle Dubas’s steadfast faith appears to be paying dividends.

In other words: Sheldon Keefe is jamming it to us all.

“There’s a lot of belief in the room. We’ve been trying to foster that for some time,” Keefe tells reporters. “The confidence has grown to a good place.”

As the Maple Leafs have rallied strongly from their disorganized and down-in-the-dumps October, absolutely Mitch Marner and Matt Murray and their overtaxed blueline depth deserve their due credits.

But so does the man pulling the strings and keeping the ship afloat through these turbulent rapids. Just when it looked like things might unravel, Keefe has pulled this room together.

“Oftentimes, when people view it, whether it is getting upset with the officials or voicing his concerns about certain players or certain groups of players on the team, they take it to mean there is a bit of a coming-unglued way about it. To me, with the way he has handled it, everything is done with a purpose. There is never anything about him that isn’t purposeful,” Dubas said when endorsing his coach earlier this month.

“When things are not necessarily perfect, he finds a way to be at his best and get the most out of the group. The thing for me about Sheldon that has been most encouraging in working with him, even as we have gone through this season where we have had stretches where we haven’t played as well: the group responds to him.

“After the road trip out to California, where we didn’t have a strong finish to the trip whatsoever, we came back home and were able to find our game again. That, to me, represents the way the players respond to the coach.

“It is always very encouraging for me to see. He is always adapting and trying to change the way he does things to make sure he is always getting through to the group.”

Sweeping a four-game road trip in an impressively consistent fashion, Keefe’s team is on a heater right now. But make no mistake, the coach came out of the gates hot.

More than any other season, we’ve seen him stop drills in practice and voice his displeasure, occasionally with loud, colourful language. We’ve seen him bench his early-season MVP, Marner, for a shift; split the Hart Trophy champ from his favourite winger; extend practices to instill work ethic; and deliver wakeup calls, via his lineup tweaks, to Michael Bunting, Justin Holl, and Nick Robertson when performance lulled.

If there was ever suspicion in October that, perhaps, his players were giving up on him, no one wondered if Keefe was giving up on them.

“At the same time he was being hard, he was being calm. We knew what we could do. We just had to get back there,” said William Nylander. “[He was] pushing those buttons to get back on track.”

Captain John Tavares notes how keen a grasp Keefe has on the pulse of his players, a diverse collection of superstars, seasoned vets, emergency call-ups, and fringe role fillers — 12 of whom are on expiring contracts.

“There’s a lot of trust between him and the coaching staff and the group here,” Tavares says.

The man with the whistle has been raising the bar, demanding better since training camp, and now it’s paying off to the tune of a .688 points percentage.

Keefe’s Leafs are a wagon. And yet, they are not playing firewagon hockey.

Far from it.

Even as the only NHL team dressing four 25-point scorers, and with Marner lighting up the world and Auston Matthews locating his rhythm, Toronto still sits in the bottom half of the league offensively (3.04 goals per game, 18th overall).

Believe it or not, the main reason behind the Maple Leafs’ success — and Exhibit A in Dubas’s justification for running back his bench boss — is an all-around defensive commitment that has recast formerly run-and-gun Toronto as the NHL’s fourth-stingiest team (2.54 goals allowed per game).

“What I’ve been most impressed with watching Toronto of late is their ability to play the right way,” Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde told reporters Monday. “It’s very impressive what they’re doing with the D corps that they’ve lost. They’re committed to playing the right way.”

Keefe only celebrated his three-year anniversary as the Maple Leafs shot-caller a week ago and he is already the league’s ninth-longest-tenured head coach. The small group ahead of him on the seniority list includes hoisters of six of the past seven Stanley Cups.

Keefe has a better regular-season record (.679 points percentage) than all of them.

Now, it’s evident he is coaching an 82-game dress rehearsal for the one time of year results have eluded him.

There is a loose parallel to be drawn here with Jon Cooper’s Tampa Bay Lightning, whose offence peaked during 2018-19’s franchise-record-setting regular season and got swept in Round 1. That organization adjusted. It traded goals for prevented goals and won two titles.

Of the seven seasons Matthews, Marner and Nylander have been in the show, the 2022-23 Maple Leafs are tracking to become both the lowest-scoring and best-defending edition, as measured by goals for and against.

“Focus has been establishing the team game,” Keefe says. “Discipline to the structure.”

That means blocking more rubber, not cheating to extend leads, and gumming up the neutral zone and denying slot chances. In short, creating a climate for goalies — all three of them — to thrive.

“We’re denying the middle of the rink pretty good as a team,” Keefe says. “It gives you a chance to win every game, especially with the goaltending that we’ve been getting. And we’ve got good players who can capitalize.”

Keefe’s defensive message is jamming through to his players, starting with the most talented among them.

“Nothing’s ever achievable in this game by yourself,” Marner says. “It’s a five-man unit out there at all times. We’ve been working. We just gotta make sure we keep this going.”

Memo to Barry Trotz: You may have to defer your Original Six intrigue past December.

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