Sheldon Keefe is my AHL Coach of the Year.
First, let’s get something out of the way. To Whom it may concern: You can take the media voting for the C.O.Y. Award and stuff it sideways because that group of people failed miserably in a very simple task.
On April 8th, 2016 it was announced, that in his 6th year of coaching the Albany Devils, Rick Kowalsky was named Coach of the Year for the AHL. Of course, there is talk about how great his systems are and his attention to details (insert Charlie Brown’s Teacher here) Pfft, thats great. Congrats Rick, I am sure you had a solid year, but there is no way on God’s blue and green marble that you did a better job than that of Marlies Coach, Sheldon Keefe.
I understand how this all works, that the voting takes place amongst the group of media that covers the AHL, the ballots are then tallied and we determine that we have ourselves a winner.
Single question: What exactly were they watching?
During his rookie campaign as an AHL Head Coach, Sheldon Keefe did the unthinkable. Sure, most people covering hockey thought the Marlies would have a good season but to this level? Nobody predicted it, and even if they did, nobody could’ve predicted exactly how it would unfold. There has never been a season like this before, so how could they?
As of writing this piece, the Marlies are working their way towards the Calder Cup Playoffs with a ridiculous record of 52-15-5 for a winning percentage of .753 (at one point before many of the call-ups the team was .800) to which if you aren’t paying attention, is absolutely incredible. That record would ensure the Marlies of 1st place overall in the AHL for points, and obviously 1st place overall in both conference and division. The young Marlies also set a new team record of 52 wins in a season, again impressive even on the surface but let us dig a little deeper.
To start the season, the Toronto team had the youngest average age in the entire AHL at 22.5 years young. (as of writing the average had increased slightly to 23.5 years old)
Now, anybody who has ever coached a team, or dealt with a group of young people (ageism) , will tell you that keeping all of the kittens in the box and focused is a near impossible task. Not only did Keefe do this during the entire season but he did it perfectly. Sheldon Keefe was known to be tough and demanding when he saw attention to details slipping, but he was also highly complimentary when it was deserved. This fine balance, isn’t a sign of just a good Coach, it’s the sign of a good person behind the bench and in the dressing room. This type of person will almost always get the best from his group of players that have been assembled.
At this point, I would be remiss if I didn’t also include the rest of the coaching staff in this piece. No Coach can do it all on his own. The support system must be in place and if they aren’t on the same page, no matter what the message is it will be lost on deaf ears. Associate Coach, Gord Dineen (last year’s Head Coach), Assistant Coach AJ MacLean, and Goaltending Coach Piero Greco all gave Coach Keefe the combination of support and sounding board that the entire group can be proud of. Simply put, their contributions can never be overlooked.
If you witnessed the Leafs campaign, you will also know that they required a ridiculous amount of players (and goalies) to be called up during the year to fill in for injuries. Did the Marlies miss a beat? Nope, between the revolving door at the Air Canada Center and the influx of players from the Solar Bears, the Marlies had, to my count, 51 (yes FIFTY ONE) players on the roster at one point or another during the season. And that is just skaters. To understand what that must be like to try get the best from a player when you are lucky enough to attach a name to a face is absolutely incredible.
Ok, so what. Keefe had a bunch of different players roll thru the Ricoh, he is a Coach it’s his job. If those numbers don’t impress you, how about the fact that the Marlies had 8 (YUP EIGHT!!) starting goalies work the twine teepee for the organization this year?? We all know how goalies need a bit more attention and special love from their Coach (yes, I was one) and would require walking a tightrope in order for them to all remain placated and feeling like they have the confidence of the players and coaching staff, right? Not only that, but Coach Keefe had the entire Jonathan Bernier saga land in his lap when things weren’t working out according to plan in the NHL. Bernier was welcomed with open arms by the Coaching Staff, fed the right amount of positivity and put up stellar numbers with the club while he was there. The wrong type of leadership from the Head Coach and that goes completely off the rails and becomes a disaster not only at the AHL level, but works its way up to the National Hockey League as well.
We need more stats? How about these stats? The Toronto Marlies had a +100 goal differential this season (as of April 11, 2016). Yes, you read that correctly, the Marlies have scored 100 more goals than their opposition has so far this year. The young club was also 10th on the powerplay overall and 11th on the penalty kill. Special teams as we know rely on consistency when it comes to personnel, and yet the team managed to put up decent numbers in very important areas. When most people think of the Marlies will think of names like Nylander, Brown and Kapanen but this team was built on depth and situational players. Captain Andrew Campbell was a plus 39 (sorry advanced staters, we have to rely on the old school for the AHL) while his partner Rinat Valiev was a plus 33. Who had really heard of players like Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov before this season? Not many, to put it bluntly. Players being put together to succeed as a group and to bring out the best in each other’s games falls on the team Coach, and in yet another area, our Coach has exceeded expectations.
So while all of the rides on the merry-go-round were taking place with the players on the Marlies roster, this is also the one season where fans are out looking for something, anything to go wrong with this franchise. With all due respect, this city isn’t Albany or Peoria, this is the Center of the Hockey Universe. Media, fans were searching for blood in the water in Toronto. Any sign that the Shanahan Plan (and Lou Lam of course) wasn’t working would have sent widespread panic to this fanbase, and we all know it. One slight development issue with a kid like Nylander, especially, would have given the media something to latch onto and attack. Sorry, folks nothing to see here.
In closing, not only did the kids of this organization play extremely well during their time with the Marlies, but they were so well coached by Keefe, that when they did make the jump to the NHL they actually gave this beaten down fanbase the chance to smile, and dream about the future. The aforementioned simple fact might be more important than any records that were set in the AHL this year, and it was all made possible by my AHL Coach of the Year, Sheldon Keefe.