Toronto Maple Leafs: Sheldon Keefe’s Masterpiece

LAVAL, QC - MARCH 08: Head coach of the Toronto Marlies Sheldon Keefe looks on from behind the bench against the Laval Rocket during the AHL game at Place Bell on March 8, 2019 in Laval, Quebec, Canada. The Toronto Marlies defeated the Laval Rocket 3-0. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
LAVAL, QC - MARCH 08: Head coach of the Toronto Marlies Sheldon Keefe looks on from behind the bench against the Laval Rocket during the AHL game at Place Bell on March 8, 2019 in Laval, Quebec, Canada. The Toronto Marlies defeated the Laval Rocket 3-0. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs hired Sheldon Keefe as head coach of the Toronto Marlies on June 8th, 2015.

Time sure flies when you’re having fun, doesn’t it?

Fun is perhaps the perfect descriptor for the Toronto Marlies of the Sheldon Keefe Era. Take one look at the sheer talent the 38-year-old has had at his disposal over the years – William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Andreas Johnsson, Travis Dermott, the list goes on – and it would be nearly impossible for any coach NOT to have fun.

Those rosters oozed it – at times offering a hotter fan ticket than the Maple Leafs themselves.

This is now Keefe’s fourth season behind the Marlies’ bench. In that time, his teams have earned a whopping 188 total wins and 403 total points, both top marks in the AHL over the span, along with two North Division titles, two Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophies (awarded to the first place regular season finisher) and, of course, one Calder Cup.

One of the more impressive aspects of those rosters, however, falls on the opposite side of the winner’s column. Keefe’s Marlies simply do not lose. Strikingly, so. Throughout the coach’s 303-game tenure thus far, the Marlies have compiled a grand total of just 87 regulation losses, with a mere 28 combined overtime and shootout defeats on their record, as well.

Fun, then, may not be the best descriptor for the Sheldon Keefe Era, after all. Perhaps “dominant” is more fitting.

Why have individual accolades eluded the coach entirely, then?

How can the man responsible for guiding the Marlies through one of the most consistently dominant stretches in AHL history, and who played a vital hand in building them into what is now arguably hockey’s most successful player development mechanism, not find his name etched on the AHL Coach of the Year award at some point?

That’s a good question, with a less-good answer.

The short version? Talent can act as a double-edged sword.

As the Maple Leafs officially kicked off their rebuild in 2015-16, Keefe’s arrival coincided precisely with the apex of a youth gold rush. A number of questions, be them spoken or thought, have naturally swirled since around whether Keefe is the main benefactor of the Marlies’ brilliance, or vice versa. Talent breeds expectations. And the past four years have been viewed, at least by some, as Keefe merely living up to his.

Is this scepticism valid? Somewhat, yes. The 2017-18 Marlies featured a whopping nine players who each found themselves on an NHL roster by Game 82 of the regular season. That is a luxury few AHL opponents can match.

But the only way to solve this chicken-or-the-egg dilemma once and for all is to take that luxury away. Strip the armour from the man, and you’ll discover his true mettle.

The past 76 games have done just that for Keefe. It’s gone a little something like this.


The duties of an AHL coach require the striking of a perfect balance. Team success is at the job’s forefront, of course, but to truly reach that upper echelon, a melding of player development and immediate results into a harmonious concoction is more or less required.

Those two don’t often go hand-in-hand, either.

Whereas player deployment tends to serve as the modus operandi for an NHL bench boss, player management – the art of identifying one’s particular needs before placing them in as conducive a situation as possible – is the blueprint for the league below. This means making in-game decisions that can often defy conventional logic, and doing so in a way that somehow accomplishes both conflicting goals at once.

This balance is where Keefe’s success stems from the most

Despite endowing nearly every iteration of his teams with a strong veteran presence, Keefe’s “teach a kid to swim by tossing them into the deep end” strategy can be pointed to as a prevailing reason for why twelve of his former Marlies currently occupy roster spots on the Maple Leafs.

Keefe trusts his young players. And in doing so, they trust him back. Even if a facet of this comes out of necessity.

When Calle Rosen suffered a foot injury on February 23rd that kept him out until March 23rd, Ramsus Sandin, the 19-year-old professional rookie, absorbed the bulk of his duties and parlayed them into a stretch of 12 points in 12 games whilst quarterbacking the Marlies’ top power-play unit and logging hefty minutes against the best competition.

Necessity may have thrust that role open, but it was Keefe who ultimately chose Sandin to fill it when he otherwise could have turned to a veteran rearguard already on his roster. But that’s not what Keefe did. And it worked.

The Marlies went 7-4-1 during Rosen’s absence, successfully keeping pace in an increasingly tight North Division playoff picture while Sandin reached a new level of his own in the process.

Team success and development. It’s a delicate balance, which Keefe consistently manages to strike.


That sequence, in fact, may serve as a perfect metaphor for the Marlies’ 2018-19 campaign.

From the opening puck drop down to the season’s final buzzer, this team has endured a degree of injuries and key personnel loss that is eye-popping even by typical AHL standards.

The Marlies lost 243 man-games to injury this season; most targeting their primary core.

Timothy Liljegren missed 30 mid-season games with a high ankle sprain. Mason Marchment spent the first 5 on the shelf, returned, then fractured his collarbone on February 1st and didn’t make it back until April 4th. Chris Mueller, who led the AHL in goals at year’s end with 33, missed 15 games of his own.

Adam Brooks missed 12. Vincent LoVerde missed 9. Frank Corrado missed 21.

After recovering from an 11-game absence in January, Andreas Borgman suffered a concussion less than one month later and landed back on sidelines for another 16.

In the midst of all this, both Carl Grundstrom and Sam Gagner proceeded to leave the team via separate trades with zero assets of immediate impact coming back the other way. Just like that, two of Keefe’s top-five point getters vanished, and due to circumstances outside of his control. It was a gutting loss.

Of course, there is only so much sympathy to be had here. Unexpected depletion is merely the nature of the American Hockey League – where affiliates stand at the mercy of their parent club’s every whim. But the human aspect of these events often goes unnoticed. Keefe is the one left to pick up the pieces, after all, which leaves him as the sole person responsible for furthering the Maple Leafs’ main prospect pipeline.

So, what did he do?

Now lacking his top two centres, Keefe made the controversial decision to shift Pierre Engvall over into the pivot spot – a position which Engvall, as he later admitted himself, hadn’t played since he was 10-years-old. This would be a significant change for any prospect, not to mention one right in the middle of his first full North American season.

But Keefe made it anyway. And in 18 games in his new position, Engvall put forth 11 points while continuing to further his progression from the perimeter-hugging winger he arrived in Toronto as into the responsible, penalty-killing, two-way asset he is today.

The move also spurned Keefe into forming the Dmytro Timashov – Engvall – Michael Carcone line.

As a trio of young players who had each previously struggled at certain points of the season, one of the happier side effects of Engvall’s switch was that Keefe could now unite them alongside linemates whose respective skill sets complimented that of their own.

Timashov put up 14 points with Engvall as his centre. Carcone chipped in 15.

How important this move ultimately was cannot be stated enough. Not only did Keefe successfully plug a gaping hole in his lineup by making an unconventional decision, he did so by identifying hidden potential in a prospect, trusting him to acclimatize to an entirely foreign position on the fly with almost zero preparation time, and watched as it ignited breakthrough stretches from two additional stalling prospects in the process.

Balance achieved.

While Chris Mueller‘s return in recent weeks has since shifted Engvall back to his usual spot on the wing, the experiment’s residual impact lingers on. Moving forward, the centre-thin Maple Leafs organization now possess a 6’5 prospect who bears the offensive instincts and two-way ability to fill that role, while a 22-year-old’s NHL ceiling rises immeasurably, as well..

This the apex of Keefe’s 2018-19 coaching masterpiece. Faced with a thought-to-be crippling dilemma, the head coach didn’t hesitate to grab hold and squeeze it for every last positive drop.


At the time of writing, the Marlies prepare to head back home, sitting on a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series versus the Rochester Americans. To the casual eye, this is a surprising result.

The Americans began this series holding nearly every conceivable advantage over their opponent; home ice, a swath of NHL prospects returning from the parent club above, and an 8-point cushion in the regular season standings. The Marlies, on the other hand, had their own issues to deal with. Reeling from the loss of their starting goaltender, Michael Hutchinson, to a thoroughly unexpected call-up mere days before the postseason began, the move effectively locked Kasimir Kaskisuo and his .896 save percentage in as the team’s last line of defence.

And yet, here they are. One game away from advancing to the next round.

“There were some transactions where we moved players out, added players, and had a number of injuries,” Keefe reflected, following the final game of the regular season.

“And amongst all that uncertainty, the players seemed to play better, and we found our way through that.”

Keefe continued on, directing praise for the Marlies 7th place finish in the AHL standings towards the players rather than himself.

“If there was anything, the coaching staff stuck with it and didn’t get frustrated. We just came to work every day. But the players have to go out on the ice and execute and perform. It’s a credit to them to staying with the process and sticking with the coaching staff to continue getting better every day.”

And get better they did.

“Our coaching staff is second to none,” reiterated Jordan Subban, whom Keefe and the Marlies’ development team spent extensive time with this year.

“(They) really got everybody to buy in and do the little things right and do what we needed to do,”   and it put us in a pretty good position here heading into the playoffs”

That position now has the Marlies prepared to sweep their higher-seeded opponent. For a coach whose own success is routinely dismissed as merely living up to expectations, this season forced Keefe to exceed them or die.

Somehow, he did even better.

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