Opportunity binge

Sheldon Keefe’s new deal with Maple Leafs won’t remove all pressure


TORONTO — Just as you cannot (yet) trust in the Toronto Maple Leafs finding playoff success, you can absolutely trust in their loyalty to one another.

From the top on down, a direct line of belief can be traced from club president Brendan Shanahan to general manager Kyle Dubas to head coach Sheldon Keefe to the core players still aiming to break through after five postseasons of disappointment.

All that trickle-down confidence in the franchise’s major personalities has resulted in a two-year contract extension for Keefe, well before the puck drops on his first full 82-game schedule behind the Leafs’ bench.

(Pierre LeBrun was first to report the deal. Word is, an agreement had been in place for some time and the Leafs kept it quiet.)

Keefe’s new deal, which will expire at the conclusion of the 2023-24 campaign, eliminates the weight and speculation that so often clouds and clutters the final year of a coach’s deal.

In theory, the added security should dissuade hot-seat rumours if Keefe’s Leafs stumble out of the gate in October and allow the bench boss to focus on steering his roster through a competitive Atlantic Division.

(Simply ask Travis Green and fans of the Vancouver Canucks if an expiring contract can be a distraction.)

Dubas, sources say, did not interview any other candidates before hiring Keefe midway through the 2019-20 season as Mike Babcock’s handpicked replacement.

Keefe’s extension suggests that the fate of both men is hitched to the success of this Maple Leafs core.

Keefe, 41, was asked directly about his feelings about his own job security when training camp opened last week.

“There hasn’t been a day when I’ve thought about it,” Keefe replied. “There also hasn’t been a day when I don’t recognize the responsibility that I have toward our fans, our ownership and our team.

“I don’t think there’s anything [new] there in terms of the demands or the pressure. I knew exactly what I was getting into, and I accept the responsibility that comes with that.”

Since graduating from the AHL Marlies — and sipping from the 2018 Calder Cup with Dubas — Keefe has guided the Maple Leafs to a sparkling 62-29-12 regular-season record (.660 points percentage). Through his first 100 games, Keefe earned more wins (61) than any Leafs coach in history.

Keefe has, however, been outwitted in both the 2020 bubble against the Columbus Blue Jackets and in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, when Toronto squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens. His stubbornness to steer stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner away from the Canadiens’ shutdown line, helmed by Phillip Danault, remains a blemish.

And Friday’s release of All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs will give fans a deeper insight into how the F-bomb-spewing bench boss inspires, communicates, and manages the star power under his command.

A midseason AHL call-up in 2019, Keefe arrived with a fraction of the hoopla and reputation and payroll as his predecessor, yet he’s motivated and meshed talents young and old, steering the 2019-20 Leafs to their best defensive effort in a generation and first divisional crown in 21 years.

“He’s been great,” said Morgan Rielly, the longest-serving Leaf. “Keefer, he lets guys play, but he also has a very strict structure. He balances that extremely well, and that’s important.”

Consider some positive developments in Leafland since Keefe grabbed the reins:

• Matthews won the Rocket Richard Trophy and evolved into a two-way force under Keefe, who placed premier setup man Marner on his wing and let them run roughshod.

• Jason Spezza, famously healthy scratched on his first night as a Leaf, has thrived, producing more offence at age 38 than he has in four years and becoming a key go-between for the staff.

• Toronto switched starting goalies for the first time in five years and it came with minimal controversy.

• William Nylander’s buttons have been pushed publicly a couple times, and the winger has responded fabulously, producing at a career rate.

• Year over year, the Leafs have improved from 26th in goals allowed per game to seventh, despite playing in the most goal-happy division.

• Justin Holl’s ascent from the outhouse to the penthouse.

• The old team used to talk about starting on time; the current one does.

Keefe is a line-tinkerer, an opportunity-giver, a data-consumer, and a praise-deflector. Ask him about T.J. Brodie, you might get an answer about Rielly — and vice versa. When he fields his umpteenth question about Matthews, he’ll remind that Marner needs more credit for his contributions to the top line.

Rielly says the Leafs now have “a different mentality” before the puck drops. There is an increased emphasis on striking first, on backchecking, and on defenders making smart pinches in an effort to prolong possession.

Keefe is a tireless worker, devoted to making himself and his players better. While the rest of the world tumbled into a Netflix algorithm during a pandemic quarantine, Keefe memorably confessed he was “binge-watching the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

Now, finally, Keefe’s contract will outlast Babcock’s.

He can focus on balancing out his four-line attack, dealing with Toronto’s first pure goalie tandem in half a decade, improving some rather shoddy special teams, and — most important — winning a playoff round or two or four.

As all coaches know, this is a results business.

And when your pockets are as deep as the Maple Leafs’, you’re not afraid to pay a man to not coach for you.

Keefe’s contract-year pressure may be alleviated, but the pressure of running the Maple Leafs’ bench isn’t going anywhere.


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