Toronto Maple Leafs’ development system has the potential to be lethal

Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan of the Toronto Maple Leafs handle the draft table during the 2018 NHL Draft. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan of the Toronto Maple Leafs handle the draft table during the 2018 NHL Draft. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs development system wants to be united through all levels of their organization, which starts with Sheldon Keefe as head coach.

With the firing of Mike Babcock, a new age has begun with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the form of Sheldon Keefe.

Keefe’s position as head coach of the NHL club symbolizes a lot more than just a new face behind the bench.

The move represents a desire for synergy in the organization from top to bottom. Kyle Dubas’ vision is clear: draft, develop and promote players with the same vision in mind through all three stages. Speed and skill are the two main focuses.

More from Tip of the Tower

Keefe and Dubas have had enormous success in the past. In 2012, Dubas hired Keefe to coach the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Keefe posted a 134-55-15 record in three seasons with the Greyhounds, all while qualifying for the playoffs each season.

Then in 2015, Keefe would take over as head coach of the Toronto Marlies and became an integral part of the Leafs organization. With Dubas as the GM and Keefe as coach, the Marlies were able to hoist the Calder Cup in 2018 as AHL champions.

Their success was built off of certain development strategies, key analytics and fast-paced, possession-based hockey. It’s very clear that Dubas and Keefe have a great working relationship, united by their similar philosophies on where the game is going.

It’s not just the way the Leafs play, but the way that people are treated. Keefe is known to be supportive and talk through issues with his players instead of a “me vs the players” type approach. Dubas is the same way. He’ll often send players and members of the organization different links to read, watch or listen to that will benefit them in some way. He communicates with everyone to try and stay on the same page and keep his vision united in the organization.

The desire for synergy in the organization is nothing new in sports. Look at some of the most successful franchises of this century. The Detroit Red Wings, who were lauded for their consistency and uncanny ability to develop great players.

The Chicago Blackhawks, who developed a chunk of their core in-house, are perhaps a better comparison to this Leafs team. The San Antonio Spurs of the NBA, who kept building and building under a strong leadership group headed by Gregg Popovich which led to the development of legendary talents such as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard.

All of these teams did a great job of uniting the franchise’s philosophies from top to bottom. This leads to better fruits of the labour because there is a clear, defined path to success. Once the blueprint is in place, it’s about executing the vision that permeates the organization, which yields the desired development results, if done properly. This is where the Leafs will find the greatest success, through their draft and development process being united with the overarching philosophies in the organization.

The Leafs are also in an advantageous position because of their financial might. They’ve gone ahead and built a sports science department and have implemented a heavily detailed analytics department. All of these things factor into the greater product of Dubas’ vision.

The synergy goes even further as you go lower in the organization. The Leafs have a clear connection to the Chicago Steel, whose head coach Greg Moore was just snatched up by the Leafs to replace Keefe behind the bench for the Marlies. Darryl Belfry, a player development consultant with the Leafs, serves this role with the Steel as well. In fact, the verbiage used in Belfry’s staff bio will sound familiar to Leaf fans:

"“Belfry and his staff support Steel player development with on-ice instruction, coaching the coaches on enhanced skill-based practices, collaborating with Steel staff on individual player development plans and supporting player growth with game-based analytics and practice and game video analysis.”"

The tactics that Belfry uses in his role fit perfectly into what the Leafs and Marlies use as well. It’s very clear that the Leafs see the Chicago Steel as having similar development and philosophical approaches to hockey, so they want to unite themselves with the Steel as much as possible. The Leafs even drafted the Steel’s Nick Abruzzese in the fourth round of the NHL draft last June.

Whether the Leafs are winning or losing games, their development process, along with principles about the game remain in unison all throughout the organization now that Sheldon Keefe is the head coach of the Leafs.

Next. Don’t get worked up about Nathan MacKinnon’s comments. dark

Will the Leafs eventually flourish into a Red Wings/Blackhawks type dynasty? Or will they fall short of expectations in typical Leaf fashion?