Toronto Maple Leafs Team President Brendan Shanahan, GM Kyle Dubas and new head coach Sheldon Keefe spoke to the media in Glendale, AZ after the decision was made to fire head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday.
Babcock was fired following the club’s sixth straight loss in Las Vegas on Tuesday, which moved the Leafs under .500 (9-10-4) after the quarter mark of the regular season. Shanahan and Dubas explained why it was time for changes to be made and Keefe indicated what the new direction of the club would be, starting with Thursday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena.
What were the reasons why a coaching change had to be made now??
DUBAS - I think our key way of looking at it is that we understand that it was an optimal time to have someone new coming in from the bench to run the program. And no practice right into the game today, so I think it's going to take some time and requires some patience, which we understand when they do these types of things.
Our way of looking at it is that we've got a full belief in (Keefe's) ability to continue to develop the players we have, because development is still so vital for all of our players regardless of their age at the NHL level, and he's shown the track record of continuing to do that, to develop players and win at the same time, and I fully understand that this is a totally new level and the highest level you can be added in this profession and will be up to all of us to prove again that it can happen here and that's the challenge and what we're all excited about.
I think we showed signs even during this stretch of playing really well, even in long time frames in games that we ended up losing. I just felt that, and in constant discussion with Shanny about it, that the level of ups and downs or inconsistency a little bit and just kind of reading all the players and watching them how they were reacting to different things that it was probably just just going to potentially go down this path and just continue to watch and let the story unfold and then make the move yesterday.
Did you see that Babcock lost the room?
SHANAHAN - I don't know if I'd characterize it that way, that should the coach lost the room. I just think that certainly from a player's perspective, you can see the frustration in their eyes. I really thought even in our last game that the players were working really hard, but there was a belief missing in them. When things are going poorly like that, a lot of things are running through your mind during the hockey game and you could almost see it in their faces that don't necessarily even involve the hockey game.
I think for everyone involved in a situation like this game tonight, it's probably easiest on the players. They're just here to a play hockey game and a lot of the challenges that we will face and Kyle and Sheldon and the coaching staff sort of putting things together over the next several days and weeks, I think for the players, they're probably happy that there's a game to play tonight.
How does Sheldon Keefe get more out of players with big contracts than Babcock did?
DUBAS - I think that our goal as a program is for each individual player reach his maximum potential and same with every staff member. I think that the players have shown in their entry level deals, they're capable of great things and that's why we elected to do the contracts that we did and there's various other circumstances that impact contract negotiations and the like. But just on why I believe Sheldon can get the most out of them, regardless of what the players are being paid.
I've watched Sheldon in two different spots we worked together (show) his ability to absolutely maximize the capabilities of each player and help them find their best. Mike also did a great job of that here to certain extent as well, and it just at times when these different things happen, there's no easy way to talk about it or put it but you're hopeful that Sheldon can take them to a new level and a different level. And that's what we're looking forward to getting to work on today and rolling from there.
On the defensive miscues with the Leafs, what makes you believe that this was a product of coaching and not a personnel issue?
SHANAHAN - I believe in the group of players that we have. I think it's a combination of the two, you can't just put all the blame on one person or just the players. It's definitely a combination and a collaboration. When you look around the NHL and you look at some of the teams that are playing a little bit better in their own end and better through the neutral zone and even some of your posture in the offensive zone is going to lead to a strong defense.
When I say strong defense. I mean get(ting) the puck back. When you look at the personnel around the entire NHL, there are a lot of teams with players that we stack very well against that are doing it better than we are. So that's the challenge for the group now and so I don't think it's any one person to point the blame at coach or player, so I think that's the challenge for Sheldon, or entire coaching staff and our players to have better communication and get this sorted out and I believe they will.
How does the long standing relationship with Sheldon benefit the Leafs going forward, as opposed to the friction with Babcock?
DUBAS - I'm disappointed in myself that I wasn't able to going into it. Coming into the job and knowing Mike was the coach, you certainly want everything to work out and going into last season going through the offseason, that was always my intention I tried to do as best I could with that. I'm disappointed in myself and only myself that it didn't work out, that we couldn't become simpatico on every single topic.
Sheldon and I have in our past have had some of the biggest disagreements and arguments I've ever had with anybody working with, but in the end I think we were largely philosophically and in terms of style of play, we're always been aligned and on the same page. And we've gone through... I know it's a lower level...but we've gone through a change like this season in Sault Ste. Marie. So that made it a little bit easier and it's not optimal by any stretch but we've had to do this before. This is obviously going to be a much bigger test and that really falls on me and nobody else.
On the advantage of having familiarity with a number of players in taking over as coach…
KEEFE - It really is a big help for me and particularly (under the) circumstances of coming in midstream in the middle of the season. Knowing the faces, working with them through training camp, I’ve had a lot of interactions with the players. Those that have been here, I've coached a lot of them with the Marlies and through training camp.
Getting to know guys a little bit, so just some familiarity that it's just a lot easier for me coming into the room today and being around the guys and talking with them and, as I said, it really wasn't sure how it was going to feel and how it was going to be. It really just felt like coaching and it just was nice. It was great support from the staff both the coaches and training equipment staff, just have things rolling when we arrived and by the time the players got in the building, it just felt like another day.
What are the biggest challenges of jumping in midstream?
KEEFE - I think the first thing is is trying to educate myself on exactly what's been happening. Of course from a distance, you make your own sort of judgments on things but really getting to know the players and getting their thoughts and then working with the coaching staff in terms of what have they identified as the issues and what has been done to this point, to try to rectify them and try to get the team going.
So that's part of it, just to get up to speed. Make sure that we're not going down the wrong road or going down a road that's already been exhausted and those types of things we're really having new ideas and bringing fresh things that are going to help the team. That's part of it and then just building the relationships on the fly and dealing with the different decisions that you have to make and how that impacts different people, that I would say is my challenge and then getting to know the league and the opponents and all those types of things. And fortunately, we have great staff here that it's an unbelievable job just to keep things rolling and prepare just for tonight's game.
On adjustments made in your first morning skate with the club…
KEEFE - That was a challenge (for) a morning skate. Usually you want to come in, you want to be crisp, you want the puck flying around, you want the guys leaving feeling good, but different circumstances. We felt we needed to touch on a few things today and we wanted to slow things down a lot more. And did a little more teaching than you normally would like to do in a setting like this and it's a lot of new drills and new patterns for the players to learn and that's not ideal on a game day, but felt it was necessary, so we asked the players first for their patience and understanding that and they were great with it. In terms of the changes, we of course want to make sure that we can do a better job of reducing the chances against and reducing the things that are happening in front of our net.
That's a real focus for us. That's something that we felt we could address pretty quickly here today. So take time to get it right on the ice and the games of course, but the feedback was good. We just feel like there's a lot of opportunity with this group and with the skill set of the team to do different things offensively and make us a more complete team in the sense that we feel like with some of the offensive people that we have and what we're able to do, that will make us a better defensive team, because we'll have the puck a lot more.
We'll put the other team in tough spots that will limit their ability to transition and play against us with their speed. We have a lot of work to do, a lot of things to really just renew the spirit of the team. That's really the main focus and so if we can tweak a couple things that can inspire some confidence then we hopefully can build on that.
What kind of team do you expect to have after you make some adjustments?
KEEFE - I would like to team to look like is a team that when we have the puck, we're going to capitalize on it and we're going to take advantage of it. We want to utilize the skill that we have, the team is built in a manner that can capitalize when it has the puck. So we want to make sure that we put a structure in place where the players can learn that and then give them the confidence and the freedom to be able to utilize their skills, but also we recognize that when we don't have the puck.
We're going to be looking to get it back in a very structured and competitive manner that's going to have a lot of pressure, and force turnovers and give us a chance to transitioning utilize the skills that we're talking about. Really all of that is going to be on a foundation of competitiveness, work ethic, discipline and structure. If we don't have those things in place, then everything else is going to kind of fall apart at the seams.
The head coach’s philosophy
KEEFE - My message to the players today is that I'm not focused on what this team isn't, I'm focused on what this team is. We've got really good people here, we've got a lot of talent. And we have the ability to make life hard on the other team in a lot of ways. So focusing on that, we believe we will produce positive results, because the players are good enough for that to happen.
Notes - Keefe agreed to a three-year contract on Thursday. The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun indicated that the contract signed with the Marlies last spring did not include any provisions for being promoted to the NHL or a corresponding increase in salary.
At the morning skate, Keefe made some adjustments to the club’s forward lines, but kept the defensive pairings the same as they were in Vegas. The only unchanged unit was the top line of Andreas Johnsson, Auston Matthews and William Nylander. John Tavares skated with Ilya Mikheyev and Zach Hyman playing the right side, Jason Spezza centered the third line with Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen, and Frederik Gauthier skated between Pierre Engvall and Nic Petan.
The other significant change was the addition of Tyson Barrie to the first power play, along with Morgan Rielly, Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander.
Frederik Andersen (9-5-3, 2.76 GAA, .912 save percentage) starts for Toronto in goal.
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