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Damien Cox: Keefe’s promotion reveals more of the Dubas blueprint

Damien Cox: Keefe’s promotion reveals more of the Dubas blueprint
Sports
Sheldon Keefe appeared as Mike Babcock often did for post-game media conferences, in a shirt and tie but no jacket. Partially relaxed, as it were.

But while Babcock usually seemed like a man anxiously waiting for a bus, aching to be done and on his way, Keefe was relaxed and businesslike. In no hurry at all.

The Maple Leafs had won the game on Saturday night, giving Keefe four wins in his first five games as head coach. So obviously the questions weren’t exactly pointed, or at least as pointed as they might have been from a defeat they probably deserved. The angry brushfire burning hereabouts two weeks ago has now moved on to Montreal, where the Canadiens are suffering through a historic swoon.

Still, Ron Wilson often was able to turn even victorious moments into sparring sessions when he coached the Leafs. “Oh, are we going to build a statue for (fill in the name of player here) now?” he’d say sarcastically if a media member dared praise the efforts of an individual player. So Keefe’s composure after a win was still noteworthy.

The new Leafs coach, in fact, seemed more like Paul Maurice, the only other man in the past 40 years to be promoted directly from coaching the Leafs’ top minor-league affiliate to coaching the parent club. Keefe is less likely to deliver a clever quip than Maurice, and his previous NHL experience was as a player while Maurice’s was as a head coach. But they both graduated to the Leafs coaching position from within, and it seemed to leave them prepared and willing to accept the spotlight, not fight it.

Keefe was hired to coach the Marlies in 2015 about three weeks after Babcock was lured to Toronto by Brendan Shanahan. He guided the team’s AHL affiliate for four years, and it seemed a certainty that another team would pick Keefe off, especially after he’d won the Calder Cup in 2018. That’s how it had worked with Dallas Eakins.

But Keefe was in a different position. He knew that Kyle Dubas had twice hired him to be his head coach before, and would again if given the chance. When Dubas took over from Lou Lamoriello in the summer of 2018, it must have at the very least given Keefe reason to believe he might get his big chance in Toronto if he patiently paid his dues.

It doesn’t always work perfectly because there’s only so many of those top positions. It didn’t work for Mark Hunter. D.J. Smith, meanwhile, left the organization to be head coach in Ottawa. He probably guessed that if something happened to Babcock, Keefe would get the first call.

As a general rule, however, the Leafs have now become a club that prefers to look for solutions inside the organization. That’s even the case, apparently, when panic over the team’s performance creates mid-season upheaval. It also extends to the playing roster. On Saturday night against Buffalo, the Leafs dressed 20 players, 11 of whom had spent time with the Marlies, coached by Keefe.

This is how the Leafs used to operate during the 1960s when they had a monopoly over the entire province of Ontario. They’d sometimes pull off big trades for Andy Bathgate or Red Kelly, but generally speaking they developed their own talent. When Punch Imlach got sick, King Clancy would take over.

That, for the most part, continued in the 1970s and 1980s, albeit erratically. In the post-Harold Ballard era, the Leafs discovered wealth and all its advantages. Cliff Fletcher started the spending, bringing in expensive players from other teams to fuel the conference finalists of ’93 and ’94. It continued through the Ken Dryden/Pat Quinn years, when pricey free agents such as Curtis Joseph, Alexander Mogilny, Gary Roberts, Shayne Corson and Ed Belfour defined how the Leafs did business.

What’s happening now is in some ways a return to the way the Leafs once operated. It’s a financial necessity, of course, because of the salary cap. You must have cheap players such as Justin Holl and Dmytro Timashov ready to plug holes when the likes of Jake Gardiner and Patrick Marleau are moved out.

Dubas and Keefe have worked together since their days in the Soo, and won the Calder Cup together. They are bonded as closely as any GM/head coach pair in Leafs history and have been promoted up the chain together, along with many of the players who played for them in the AHL. That creates a certain mindset.

Personnel will still sometimes come from outside. away from the USHL’s Chicago Steel to replace Keefe, rather than give the job to assistants A.J. MacLean or Rob Davidson. Moore will now begin an apprenticeship of his own, beginning with working alongside Keefe for the next two weeks.

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The ascension of Keefe to head coach, however, is the latest lesson in how this organization prefers to function when it can. It’s why the Leafs already seem as much Keefe’s team as they ever did Babcock’s team.

Keefe is an organization man. Babcock was a high-priced free agent from elsewhere. We’ll see how the difference plays out over time.
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