On the day Sheldon Keefe ran his first practice as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a story about his predecessor Mike Babcock overshadowed the on-ice activity.
A report from the Toronto Sun on Monday revealed Babcock brought a rookie into his office during the 2016-17 season and asked him to list players on the team from hardest working to least hard-working.
The rookie obliged, but was taken aback when his list was shared with the teammates he placed at the bottom.
After Monday’s practice, Mitch Marner confirmed a further report from The Athletic that he was the rookie in question.
Marner told TSN that Babcock’s method of instilling work ethic was “surprising.”
“[What happened with Babcock], that was my first year, I didn’t really know what to think of it,” Marner said. “But it’s all over with now, there’s really nothing I can say. I’m looking forward to the future and the new change and seeing how I can help this team win with Sheldon.”
Babcock sent a text messages to Sportsnet reporter Elliotte Friedman saying he apologized to Marner for the incident at the time.
Marner also added that the situation was made easier to deal with because the list wasn’t held against him by his teammates.
“It was huge for a first-year guy,” Marner said. “When I heard about [what Babcock did], I didn’t really know what to think. But I was lucky enough to have that first-year group with me and our team was very tight and very well-knit together. That was a lucky situation. But it’s over with now; it’s out of my head.”
Keefe finally returns home
With the Babcock era over in Toronto, Marner and his current Leafs teammates are looking forward to turning the page with Keefe behind the bench.
“I think that their minds just weren’t thinking freely and you can see the last couple games, a couple of those guys have just gone out there and are having fun with the puck and are doing their skills and doing their thing and it’s helped our team out a lot,” Marner said.
In the whirlwind 96 hours since taking over for the fired Babcock on Wednesday, the newly-minted Leafs head coach barely had time to process anything other than what was right in front of him.
Keefe rushed to join the scuffling team — losers of six straight at that point — in Arizona, where he picked up his first win behind an NHL bench the following night against the Coyotes.
WATCH | Leafs bury Avs for 2nd win under Keefe:
Tyson Barrie had a goal and an assist to lead the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 5-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche 1:52
Then it was onto Colorado where Toronto jumped out to a early lead against the Avalanche before hanging on for another victory in the thin mountain air.
A native of nearby Brampton, Ont., Keefe expected things to be a little overwhelming early, but said the transition has been relatively smooth.
“I’ve been prepared and been able to handle things as they’ve come,” he said. “A lot of the credit goes to the [coaching] staff and the players, just for how welcoming they’ve been, how easy they’ve been to talk to, how supportive they’ve been.
“All those things have helped my cause here and made it a lot easier.”
WATCH | Keefe excited for journey with Leafs:
Sheldon Keefe addressed the media for the first time on Thursday after being named the 31st head coach in Toronto Maple Leafs history. 12:13
In his first Toronto media availability in the top job, the 31st coach in franchise history stepped from behind a sliding door in the locker room where eight television cameras and more than twice as many reporters waited.
“A little different being at home,” he joked of the attention after two games and a practice on the road.
Keefe has already put his stamp on a team, insisting the talent-rich roster express itself offensively. That, in turn, should mean less time spent defending.
“He says it how it is and gives us really good direction in how we want to play the next shift, next period, next game,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “The group’s responded well.”
“He’s really passionate,” added Toronto centre Auston Matthews, whose team continues a six-game road trip Wednesday in Detroit. “He brings a real energy in the locker room. The message he’s trying to get across is for us to just play hockey. We want to lay down the foundation.”
Instilling vibrant environment
Whereas Babcock wasn’t shy about subtly and sometimes no-to-so-subtly calling out management’s personnel decisions — from the troublesome backup goalie position to the signing of veteran centre Jason Spezza this summer — Keefe and Dubas see the game through the same prism.
At his first practice in Toronto, Keefe had the entire team go through a 20-minute skills session on an adjacent sheet of ice that included a number of the organization’s development staff taking a hands-on approach.
Dubas stood in one corner of the rink recording some of the drills on his phone.
“We’re working on skill, but there’s also structure to what we’re working on,” said the 36-year-old Spezza, who played against Keefe in junior. “It’s team concept stuff, so it’s skill within that framework.”
Keefe is also doing his best to get the Leafs — a group with Stanley Cup aspirations — feeling good about themselves again after falling below the .500 mark and out of the playoff picture at the time of Babcock’s dismissal.
He inserted Denver native Nick Shore into the lineup against Colorado and made sure Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot started in their first game against the Avalanche following the off-season trade that brought the pair to Toronto.
“We want to make it a priority,” Keefe said of working to keep spirits high. “We want to be a team that’s thriving.
“We want an environment that’s vibrant.”
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