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Toronto Reporters React to Devils Sheldon Keefe Hire, ‘The Players Will Love Him’

Toronto-based reporters react to the Devils hiring Sheldon Keefe and provide a deep dive on the former Maple Leafs head coach.



New Jersey Devils
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The New Jersey Devils officially announced they’ve hired Sheldon Keefe as their 31st head coach in franchise history on Thursday.

The media will meet with General Manager Tom Fitzgerald and Keefe on Tuesday morning to introduce New Jersey’s new head coach.

However, in the press release, Keefe offered his first comment on being hired as the Devils’ head coach.

“This is an exciting time, and I’m honored to be a member of the Devils’ organization,” said Keefe. “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. After meeting with David, Josh, Tom, and other members of the organization and in talking with my family, this was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. I know this organization has a great history of winning and I look forward to getting started to work on leading them back to that level.”

It’s certainly an exciting time for Devils fans who seemingly chose Keefe as their favorite candidate before Fitzgerald made his decision.

Speaking with New Jersey Hockey Now before the Devils officially named Keefe as their head coach, Toronto-based reporters, Kevin McGran and Mark Zwolinski reacted to the hire and shed light on what Devils fans can expect from Keefe.

“Sheldon is a good coach who dealt with a [Toronto Maple Leafs] roster that was extremely potent offensively, but consistently lacking in some key qualities: goaltending, and size-strength on the back end,” Zwolinski explained. “Keefe and Kyle Dubas hatched an organizational plan back in 2016 or so when both were with the Marlies. That plan was based on speed and a somewhat risky belief that the roster – centered on landing Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in the draft – could win by dominating puck possession, especially in the offensive zone.

“Keefe worked it well, winning the Calder Cup in 2018, though that roster had [William] Nylander, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, and other sure-bet NHLers. Keefe went on with that system to lead the Leafs to record-setting regular seasons and NHL-leading power plays. He got the most out of Matthews – the league’s leading goal score since he arrived in the NHL – and you can certainly argue that his players “bought-in” to his coaching style and systems, given the consistent, 100 points-plus regular seasons. The fine line, at least in Keefe’s case, is playoff performance. We all know how that went here in Toronto, and it’s the one major stumbling block in his Leafs’ coaching career. And it’s the one detail that will always be brought up when conversations turn to whether Keefe was a good coach or a great coach.”

Ah yes, the elephant in the room. Keefe’s regular season success precedes him. However, the Maple Leafs’ struggles to eclipse the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Keefe’s tenure is well documented.

Asked both McGran and Zwolinski if they believed Keefe could overcome that obstacle with the Devils.

“Oh, I think so,” McGran said without hesitation. “I think he could have probably overcome the narrative in Toronto. The problem that he faced here was that there was just such a clamor for change. They had to do something and I think he just walked the plank because of an early round exit. Players, coaches, teams, and general managers do not like to use injuries as an excuse. But they played three games without Nylander and two games without Matthews, and in every other game one of them was not at 100%.

“The Devils missed the playoffs without Dougie Hamilton. How many teams can survive their best players not playing? I think that was a huge part of the Leafs’ problem. A reasonably healthy roster could have beaten the Boston Bruins. I’m convinced of it. Boston didn’t have any injuries and the Leafs had a bunch… I do think he paid the price for an unlucky run of injuries at the worst possible time more than anything else, and the rabid fan base was just clamoring for change. Something big had to happen and that was, as you know, the coach is the easiest thing to go.”

Zwolinski explained why Keefe’s first-round exit history is unique.

“Keefe’s challenge, like any other coach, is to get his players to believe in him and to get them to buy into their roles and the system,” Zwolinski explained. “But this albatross that is Keefe’s history with early playoff exits is unique … and probably more unique to him than any other NHL coach. It’s intensely personal now and you could tell that by Keefe’s exit comments in Toronto. And I feel that, YES, Keefe can overcome this one, big thorn in his career. There is a basic, reason-based belief that his run of early exits has to break.  And I would think Keefe has to be absolutely stoked and super motivated with his hire in New Jersey, which brings another chance to get that job done.

“He’s a good coach. He has a new roster and new opportunities. I’d venture to say that he is very much like his new roster: both have a new life, based on his hiring, and both should be super pumped to make the playoffs and re-establish the Devils as a playoff power. In short, I think Keefe is the NHL coach with  more to prove than any other NHL coach out there right now.”

At his end-of-season conference, Fitzgerald explained he wanted a coach that would hold his players accountable. Asked how Keefe handled accountability in Toronto.

“Well, he was really, really hard on Nylander. Nylander’s a really high-end talent,” McGran said. “But he’s had Nylander from an 18-year-old because he was with the Marlies when he was the AHL coach and the Leafs drafted Nylander and he played in that league. He knew [Nylander] better than most. He was really hard on Timothy Liljegran who sort of blossomed as a defenseman. I think he also picks his spots. He knows what works with players and what doesn’t. He benched a veteran in David Kampf in the middle of the season and Kampf responded by playing his best hockey after the benching.”

There were some issues, however.

“But he did have this issue where he would sort of call out his players,” McGran continued. “And of course in Toronto, if you do that, it becomes its own thing and he’d have to walk it back and say, ‘that’s not really what I meant.’ That happened three or four times. It was actually kind of amusing because we got to the point where he’d say something, it would blow up and then the next day he’d apologize or he’d need to sort of reshape it. So he can be that guy, but I don’t think he treats every player the same, but he treats every player the way that they believes is the best way to treat that player. He individualizes how he approaches what he wants out of each player.”

Did the players appreciate Keefe’s accountability approach?

“Keefe could be accused of sort of over-coddling the top guys. But, I never sensed that the message wasn’t getting through,” McGrin said. “Sometimes they just didn’t have it. He did give rousing speeches that didn’t seem to work because they never won those defining moment game sevens. But he can be accused of coddling his top-end players. That might be the way [the players] wanted it. I don’t know the personalities of New Jersey’s top-end players, they might respond differently.

“I think he’ll be a better coach in New Jersey than he was in Toronto. Just because he’s taking that experience with him.”

A simple search through the GIFs provided on X (formerly Twitter) will show some chuckle-worthy images of Keefe reacting to situations behind the Toronto bench.

There’s no question that Keefe can bring a fiery personality behind the bench.

Asked about Keefe’s fiery personality and if it ever hindered the Toronto bench.

“Well, he actually worked on that,” McGrin explained. “He was he was quite fiery as a as a young player he had. He was quite an angry young man but he’s worked in this position all of his adult life to get where he has. So, I think he more or less picks his spots now when it comes to that. I personally think they kind of needed it because their captain John Tavares is about as stoic as they come. He’s not an animated guy. So somebody on the bench within the leadership had to be, and that was Keefe. I think he could reel it back in if he senses the bench doesn’t respond well to it.”

Fitzgerald also explained he wanted a collaborative head coach behind the Devils’ bench. Someone who works with analytics for decisions and personnel or strategy.

Is Keefe that coach?

“Absolutely. The Devils, to me, are one of the finest young teams in the NHL,” Zwolinski said. “If Keefe has demonstrated anything as an NHL coach, it’s that he can work well with a younger roster. The speed and puck movement system that is his pedigree as a coach should suit the Devils’ roster just fine, and I would say it should help squeeze more out of Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and some of the other, gifted young players on the roster. Of course, the Devils, like the Sabres, Senators, and Red Wings, need to further develop that one intangible: playoff-type hockey, to be judged a success. And, of course, the same observation can be applied to Keefe. It will be interesting to see how Keefe has the Devils playing and ‘going’ next season.

“They should be a playoff team.”

On Keefe’s tactics, McGran added.

“Yeah, he’s really smart tactically. His problem might be overthinking but he’s really smart tactically in terms of knowing when he wants to line match and he knows what his players are capable of. He uses them almost 100% properly. Keefe’s a player’s coach in that sense. When they come to Toronto, the Toronto guys will be in the starting lineup. When they go to Montreal, the Montreal guys will be in the starting lineup. Small things like that. He’ll know what matters to them. And on a personal note, he’ll make sure they get that recognition. Keefe’s a warm blanket as they say. The players will love him.

“Tactically, he is very smart. He’ll trust the analytic guys, he’ll trust the video team. He’ll trust the coaches around him. And I presume he’ll bring in some some guys that he trusts. But you’ll see that he won’t do anything without having thought it through first.”

Speaking of the video team, the assumption right now is that Keefe will be able to choose his own staff. So, who in Toronto might be plucked and placed in New Jersey next to the Devils’ newest head coach?

“Well, I think he likes Guy Boucher [who worked with] the [Toronto] forwards and the six-on-five and the powerplay,” McGran said. “I imagine Boucher will walk the plank [in Toronto]. I think all these guys are gonna walk the plank and [Craig] Berube will bring in his own staff. He might keep Mike Van Ryn. But, I think [Boucher] would be available. He would probably like to bring his video team if he could because the Leafs’ video team was absolutely amazing. Jordan Bean and a few of the other guys. But those guys tend to be homebodies.”

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