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Sheldon Keefe Is A Perfect Fit For Broadway

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Sheldon Keefe skates with the puck Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images/NHLI

The Rangers’ coaching search has been going on for a few days now officially, but has probably been in the back of Jeff Gorton’s mind for the past few weeks.

As Alain Vigneault (and his staff) head out the door, new faces and names have already started getting linked to New York. Adam took a deeper look at nine potential coaches who might be on the Rangers’ radar, and in that mix was a one Sheldon Keefe. Here’s Adam’s thoughts on Keefe — who is the current head coach of the Toronto Marlies (the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate):

Keefe may be the ideal option for the Rangers in that he’s a fresh, forward-thinking coach but who has also paid his dues and moved up the ladder of minor league hockey. He’s a big believer in analytics, but more importantly knows how to understand data and then use it to coach his players on the ice. Though Toronto won’t want to lose him, they may not have a choice. Mike Babcock is going nowhere, and at some point Keefe will want a chance in the NHL.

We also had a quick discussion about Keefe on the all-new recorded podcast (way better sound quality) this past week.

Keefe has seen massive success with Toronto’s AHL squad, going 143-63-15 over the past three years behind the bench. Yes, players like William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Timothy Liljegren, and the like help quite a bit, but not all teams full of talent succeed at any level. It’s the job of the coach to get the most out of them, and Keefe has clearly done that.

That, right there, is a big reason why I think his name should be so high on the Rangers’ potential coaches list. Toronto entrusted some of their most critical prospects during the analytically-drive Maple Leafs’ rebuild, and he worked wonders with them. Was it easier because the players were talented? Yes, of course. But as you can see by Pavel Buchnevich, or J.T. Miller, or Kevin Hayes, or Anthony DeAngelo that talented youth doesn’t always turn into optimal production on their own. They need to be nurtured and developed, and that’s something that’s clearly been missing on Broadway, mainly due to the coach they just fired.

The other big plus for Keefe is the way he looks at the game. Not only is Keefe analytically driven, but he’s throw off the shackled of the “old boys’ club” thinking and has a forward-thinking philosophy that he’s implemented for his group. As Adam illustrated in the above linked story:

I was told a story recently where Keefe had to spend time in training camp with new players and force them to unlearn cliche concepts of getting pucks deep and making safe plays. Keefe wants a team that values possession of the puck. His teams execute breakouts so well, and do not punt the puck when under pressure in the neutral zone.

In an attempt to get a better look at Keefe, I reached out to Scott Wheeler of The Athletic, who has watched Keefe closely, and had some really interesting things to say:

There are a few things I’ve learned about Keefe in the last three years that really stand out. The first, is that he’s a detail-freak. You’d be hard-pressed to find a coach who is as dialed into how to create successful systems at even-strength as Keefe, particularly offensively. His teams play fast, his players know where to find open space, and they score and create a ton as a result. The same can be said to how they defend too. The Marlies have been blessed with good goaltending but they also play a tight style that contains really well.

This is a drastic adjustment from both John Tortorella and Vigneault, who both forced systems that took away from the Rangers’ ability to break out and create sustained offensive pressure. Where Tortorella’s system was build on quick counterattacks and a gritty, shot-blocking defense, Vigneault’s system forced quick breakouts that either needed to turn into one-off opportunities or a dump and cycle to try and retain possession. Both of those ideals seem to be at odds with the way Keefe wants to play the game, and that’s a blessing that we’ve been waiting for on Broadway for a long, long time.

Keefe, as mentioned above, has been entrusted with developing Toronto’s biggest stars, and has succeeded. Wheeler has thoughts on that as well:

The fourth is that he does a really good job - and the Leafs and Marlies as a whole do this - developing players on an individual basis. Every player under Keefe has a different plan and he believes development never ends, even for veterans. His graduation rate speaks to that. But he isn’t a players coach per se. He doesn’t strike me as a warm and fuzzy coach and he’s not going to baby anyone. He’s extremely serious and heated, sometimes too much so. He also definitely has favourites and I suspect that rubs some players the wrong way.

Having an individual plan for each player is something that should excite you. I’m not sure there was ever a time when I was able to look at a young player coming through the ranks and map out what Vigneault’s long term plan was for them (with the exception of Jesper Fast).

The Rangers have risers coming through the topsoil — and have been for a couple of years. Buchnevich, Brady Skjei, DeAngelo, and Hayes are the biggest misuses on the current roster under Vigneault’s tenure. Filip Chytil’s two-game stint at the start of the year was a joke. Lias Andersson was used as a fourth liner when he was called up. Players like John Gilmour, Neal Pionk, Vinny Lettieri weren’t expected to make big splashes, but will be benefit from a more nurturing coach. Jimmy Vesey being used properly (a third-line guy) will more than likely help the team as a whole. Keefe is more than prepared to deal with all of this.

The focus on lineup decisions, player usage, and in the same breath player development is the one you hear most often when it comes to evaluating a coach. There’s a reason for this: It’s the biggest thing they really do. Hockey coaches rarely call out set plays, unlike basketball. There are no enormous game-altering decisions (like whether or not to go for it on fourth down) as in football. There’s no ... well, uh, what does a baseball manager even really do? Anyway ... in hockey it comes down to the players on the ice, when you deploy them, and how you use them. That also plays a key role in developing players, since, as an example, you can’t get the most out of a 22-year-old offensively gifted winger when you play him on the fourth line. Just a thought.

It should be noted that Wheeler does mention a familiar issue that Keefe does bring with him, though:

The third is that his power plays are too stagnant. If there’s one thing he has struggled to build it’s a successful system with the man-advantage.

I would argue, however, that all coaches have favorites, or players they like, or blind spots. The issues we ran into with Vigneault was that these were tried and true players who were veterans and keeping better options off the ice or out of the lineup entirely. Safe to say any coach has favorites, but even with this “knock” against him, Keefe did a fine job doing the exact thing we’ve had such an issue with when it came to Vigneault.

Keefe has been rumored to be high on the Rangers’ list as it is, but they can’t reach out to him until his season with the Marlies is over.

It would be silly not to mention a previous relationship with David Frost (more can be seen on that here), but by all indications the two had their heaviest interactions when Keefe was younger, and Keefe has made it clear in other publications of the matter the two no longer have any type of relationship, nor would one be welcomed.