DENVER — Sheldon Keefe arrived back in Toronto in the early morning Sunday and got to sleep in his own bed. On Monday, he’ll jump in his car and drive to the Ford Performance Centre, the complex where he’s been running on-ice workouts for the Toronto Marlies the past five seasons.
That’s where the familiarity will end.
Instead of being on the ice sheet for the Marlies, the Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate he coached from 2015-19, he’ll be across the hall overseeing practice for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Once that’s over, he’ll be swarmed by dozens of members of the Toronto media who were not in Arizona to talk to him after he replaced the fired Mike Babcock as Maple Leafs coach on Wednesday.
“Things will settle down from here … We’ll work on some things and continue to grow the group,” Keefe said after the Maple Leafs defeated the Colorado Avalanche 5-3 at Pepsi Center on Saturday. “I’ll get a chance to continue to grow my relationship with individual players and, for me, that’s the priority right now.”
For their part, the players are all in.
“We can just take it day by day,” goalie Frederik Andersen said. “That’s all we can do. A lot of new stuff coming in forces us to be very accepting to new systems, new information and all that stuff.
“I think it’s gone well so far.”
He’s right, considering what a whirlwind week it has been for both Keefe and the Maple Leafs. At the same time, there are areas that need addressing.
The Maple Leafs (11-10-4) have won their first two games under Keefe, impressive when considering he’s only had the chance to run one practice since being hired.
They were the better team in his NHL coaching debut, a 3-1 victory against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on Thursday. The same could be said for the first period against Colorado when Toronto built a 4-1 lead Saturday.
But the Maple Leafs reverted to some poor habits in the final 40 minutes against the Avalanche. They were outshot 29-13 and often were caught pursuing opposing players in their own zone rather than clogging up the slot between the face-off dots, one of the wrinkles Keefe is attempting to introduce.
“I think [we’re] just going through the process of changing things up on the fly,” forward Auston Matthews said. “So I think it’ll be good to get a couple of practice days in before we get on the road again, and kind of dial some things in.”
The Maple Leafs will practice Monday and Tuesday before playing the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; SN1, SNE, SNO, FS-D, NHL.TV). Another practice is scheduled for Thursday in Buffalo before a home-and-home with the Sabres Friday and Saturday.
Keefe is attempting to get a buy-in on a completely different system from Babcock’s. At the heart of Keefe’s vision: puck possession and an emphasis on skill. High-risk stretch passes are out; low-risk, multiple give-and-goes are in.
“The toughest thing to grasp is just when to hang onto the puck for a little bit longer than you normally would and when to move it quickly,” Keefe said. “When to utilize speed and just look at things on the ice. That’s the difficult part, is that decision making.
“I think we have players with really good hockey sense, really good skill and, in time, they’ll recognize the patterns, recognize the pressures that are coming at them. Also recognize the time of the game, the time of the period and what’s happening in the shift. All of those types of things I think we’ll be able to talk them through until they recognize it.”
If players need convincing that Keefe’s philosophy can work, they need only look at how he has already positively influenced defenseman Tyson Barrie.
Barrie, acquired in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche on July 1, did not have a goal in his first 23 games with the Maple Leafs. He looked lost at times and said he lacked confidence, an offshoot of playing the cautious game that Babcock was known for.
One of Keefe’s first directives was urging Barrie to jump into the play and not be afraid to pinch. He moved the speedy defenseman to the first power-play unit for the first time this season.
Barrie has two goals and an assist in two games under Keefe. His first appearance on the top power-play unit resulted in a goal 22 seconds into the man-advantage against the Avalanche.
“The way I feel about myself right now from a week ago is night and day,” Barrie said.
The same could be said for the vibe around the team. The tense atmosphere that seemed to be hanging over them has been replaced by laughter and jokes. Players were throwing snowballs after practice in Denver on Friday. Mitchell Marner, the forward who is out several more weeks with an ankle injury, accompanied the Maple Leafs on the trip and spent the past couple of days playing pranks and hiding teammates’ equipment.
“We’re tight, we’re loving each other out there,” Barrie said. “It’s a fun group to be part of.”
“Fun” wasn’t a word being used by the Maple Leafs a week ago.