As the Leafs are wont to do nowadays, some fairly notable news dropped on a Friday evening, as Bob McKenzie tweeted that Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe is a candidate for the head coaching job in Arizona.
Hearing that Dallas Eakins will interview in Arizona for the Coyotes HC job.— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) June 30, 2017
I'll see your Dallas Eakins and raise you a Todd Nelson and Sheldon Keefe. Could be as many as 4/5 candidates IMO: https://t.co/uU5LcTPiGO— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) June 30, 2017
As he says, other candidates include Todd Nelson and (former Marlies coach) Dallas Eakins. On his podcast, McKenzie notes that he does not think formal permission has been asked of the Leafs to talk to Keefe.
Obviously, this is not a done deal by any means, but Keefe has had a generally successful coaching career, and it seemed inevitable that his name would pop up regarding NHL vacancies. His stint with the Marlies began in the 2015/2016 season, having just come off three successful seasons in the OHL with the Soo Greyhounds (some of that time spent under current Leafs Assistant General Manager, Kyle Dubas).
Under Keefe, the Marlies have been quite successful. In 2015/2016, they destroyed the AHL, finishing first in the league by 12 points, and making it to the conference finals. After an offseason that saw a large portion of the team graduate to the Leafs (including two of their best players in William Nylander and Connor Brown), they took a step back this year. That said, they still finished second in their division and won a playoff round.
From a macro perspective, it’s hard not to look at Keefe’s time with the Marlies as a success. They’ve won a lot of games, and largely off the backs of legitimate prospects. Perhaps more importantly, a number of Marlies have graduated to full-time Leafs roles under Keefe. William Nylander, Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov, Kasperi Kapanen, and Zach Hyman were all legitimate contributors on an NHL playoff team. Even guys like Frederik Gauthier saw some NHL time. And the well hasn’t run fully dry either. Travis Dermott has been tapped by some reporters as a player with an outside shot at an NHL role in the 2017/2018 season. In that sense, he’s succeeded in both of his key objectives as an AHL coach.
However, Keefe is not without his faults. He made the baffling decision to ride with Antoine Bibeau in the 2016 playoffs, as opposed to the superior Garret Sparks. In a related point, the 2016 playoffs were disappointing in general. The Marlies, a regular season juggernaut, limped their way into the conference finals before being unceremoniously bounced by Hershey (with a Nylander hat-trick one of the few things preventing a sweep). It’s worth questioning how much of his AHL success is due to his coaching, versus the Marlies having a stacked roster in recent years, due to the Leafs management group. Put another way, I think Nylander probably lights up the AHL even if I’m coaching him.
Another thing that might harm him is his relative lack of pro experience. These two years with the Marlies represent his sole coaching experience with players who are making actual money.
We’ll see what happens here. Keefe was also linked to an NHL job last summer, in Colorado (bullet dodged there). Even if Arizona decides to go another direction, it seems like Keefe is generating buzz for NHL jobs, and sooner or later, a team is going to take a shot on him. We’ll see how the Leafs react when that’s the case.