Sportsnet’s Justin Bourne posted an interesting article yesterday titled “What To Expect From the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2021-22.” In that article, Bourne talked about working with Sheldon Keefe for two seasons. He shared how Keefe operates and his extensive use of video in the offseason. The man is a hard-worker, fastidious in his preparation.
Bourne also shared that, given the impact of the pandemic, Keefe had not yet had a full offseason or an actual full 82-game full season of hockey to work with as a coach. It’s been a crazy time in hockey – and everything else. However, each season, as unusual as they’ve been, Keefe comes closer to a chance to impact his vision on the team. This season will be his most “regular” chance to build his team.
Bourne’s article begs the questions: First, has Sheldon Keefe really had the chance to put his stamp on this team? Second, what will that vision look like? Finally, will that vision be successful in today’s NHL?
The following timeline suggests how irregular events have been since Keefe was first handed the reins of this team.
First, Keefe was promoted to head coach of the Maple Leafs on November 20, 2019.
Second, he was behind the bench for 47 games between November 21, 2019, and March 10, 2020. After the NHL suspended play on March 12, 2020, because of COVID-19 isolation rules, Keefe had time to study those 57 games. However, he had no access to his players. He couldn’t practice to implement what he saw.
Third, on July 13 2020, the Maple Leafs returned to the ice for a mini-camp prior to the start of the playoffs. The team played its first game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on August 2 and its last on August 9. [The playoffs finished on September 28, when the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Dallas Stars to win the Stanley Cup.]
Fourth, the Maple Leafs started their 2020-21 training camp on January 3, 2021. The team played its first regular-season game on January 13, 2021. They played their last regular season game on May 14, 2021.
Fifth, the Maple Leafs played their first playoff game on May 20, 2021, and their last on May 31, 2021. [The Stanley Cup playoffs ended on July 7, 2021, when the Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens to win the championship once again.]
That timeline was the same timeline all NHL teams faced; however, for a new coach seeking to implement new systems and philosophies, it was a hodgepodge of irregular opportunities. Tracing those dates suggests that it’s been far from business as usual for the Maple Leafs (nor has it been for any NHL team).
Since November 20, 2019, under coach Keefe, the Maple Leafs have played 103 regular-season games and 12 playoff games. As Maple Leafs’ fans know, the team’s regular-season record has been excellent. During the regular season, the team’s won 62 games, lost 29, and had 12 overtime or shoot-out losses. That’s a total of 136 points and a .660 winning percentage. Translating that record over an 82-game regular season, it would amount to a 49-23-10 record (or 108 Points). Their playoff record stands at five wins and seven losses.
Because the offseason between the 2020-21 and the upcoming 2021-22 season has been shorter than usual – only 80 days between the last game played and the start of training camp – Keefe will still not have had a full offseason to analyze the team’s play from last season and implement the changes he’d like to install.
However, if all goes well in the world, he’ll get his first chance to coach a full 82-game season behind the bench. It will still be a condensed season in many ways, because the NHL is taking a break so its players can suit up for their home countries in the Olympics. Still Keefe gets a full season to mold this team into his image; and, if they make the playoffs, get them ready for the playoffs.
Although Keefe had no NHL coaching experience when he was promoted to guide the Maple Leafs, he’s put together an impressive resume during his short NHL coaching career. His career suggests that resume has been built on success.
Keefe coached the Pembroke Lumber Kings to five straight championships in the Central Canada Junior A League. He also was coach when his team won a National Championship and the 2011 Royal Bank Cup.
In 2014-15, Keefe was behind the bench of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds when they had their best season in franchise history. That team finished first in the regular season and went all the way to the playoff finals, ultimately losing to the Connor McDavid led Erie Otters.
That season, Keefe won the Matt Leyden Trophy as the OHL’s Coach of the Year. He was also named Canadian Hockey League Coach of the Year. In total, his OHL coaching record was, over 204 regular-season games, 134-55-15 (for a 684 winning percentage). His playoff record in 29 games was 16-13 (for a 552 winning percentage).
Keefe was named head coach of the Toronto Marlies on June 8, 2015. In five seasons with the Marlies, he coached the team to a regular-season record in 320 games of 200-89-31 (for a .673 winning percentage). His Marlies’ playoff record in 59 games was 38-21 losses (for a .644 winning percentage.)
During the 2017-18 season, Keefe’s Marlies won the AHL Calder Cup.
The constant about Keefe’s coaching has been his winning percentage. In the OHL it was .684 percent; in the AHL it was .673 percent, and in the NHL it was .660 percent.
One interesting statistical fact is that, during the Maple Leafs 104-year history, the team has had 31 head coaches. After only 103 games, Keefe is already 17th in wins at 62, right behind John Brophy, who sits 16th with 64, and Roger Neilson, who’s 15th with 75 wins. His .660 winning percentage is .069 percentage points higher than second-place Pat Quinn with .591 percent.
So far, he’s been the best Maple Leafs’ coach in winning percentage. If Keefe wins just 37 games this season, he’ll move into the top 10 in wins for a Maple Leafs’ coach.
The one thing Maple Leafs’ fans can learn about coach Keefe is that he’s won at every level of hockey he’s coached. There’s nothing in his history to indicate that the Maple Leafs will not be successful with Keefe behind the bench, when once the league gets back to business as usual.
During the 2021-22 regular season, Maple Leafs’ fans will come closer to seeing what vision Keefe has for his teams. The question is: Will it work?
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]