The playoffs are all that remains to prove to Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe

When the Maple Leafs posed for their annual team photo on Wednesday, Sheldon Keefe could appreciate the moment.

The head coach, in his third year with the team, was finishing his first full 82-game season behind the bench, with COVID shortening the previous two. Keefe and his team were completing a regular season schedule in which the team had set franchise records for wins and points, and many players had set personal bests.

“It’s special to be able to coach the Leafs,” Keefe said as his team prepared for another shot at getting out of the first round of the playoffs. “Whatever the team behind you has accomplished, it’s something special.

“But this group in particular has given me a lot to be proud of for the work they’ve done to get to this point. To be in, in my opinion, the most competitive division in the NHL and to be in the first round of playoffs with home advantage is a testament to the work the group has put in. So it’s nice to sit there (for the team photo), but we’d love to have another team photo, when all will be said and done, with some trophies there.

The Leafs finished the season with the best power play in the NHL, avoiding last year’s slump when the team was among the worst in the second half of the schedule. They led the league with 13 shorthanded goals. And, for a team that wanted to be tougher to play against than previous editions, the Leafs addressed a number of key issues: better puck decisions, cleaner play in the defensive zone and more physical play. Trades from Ilya Lyubushkin, Mark Giordano and Colin Blackwell helped this latest deal.

Keefe was also able to build his coaching staff during the offseason, adding assistants Spencer Carbery and Dean Chynoweth, and point coach Greg Harden.

Now is the time to prove that all additions and milestones are part of a legitimate team competing in the post-season.

“Well, I think I know my team and my players a lot better,” Keefe said recently. “Each experience you go through allows you to change course…but also to press buttons and push in certain ways. Players understand why you’re doing it because of what you’ve been through, and they know what they’re focusing on.

“The coaching staff has also changed. All the coaches I’ve worked with since I’ve been here are excellent in their own way. This season, with Dave Hakstol leaving Seattle, I had the opportunity to come out and really go through the process here to really select my coaching staff. I think our staff are very efficient and we really like the way we came together and how everyone handled their responsibilities. All of these things will make me, as a coach, feel much more prepared.

Although the work never stops, it is believed that the team is ready to take the next step.

“I’m pretty confident in our team’s ability to stay focused and play through anything,” Keefe said. “We want to be aggressive and we have to be physical ourselves. For the most part, our team is focused and disciplined. We play tough and competitive… we want to be starters that way, but we also need to be a team that’s comfortable playing with that physique, and it’s going to intensify even further. So we have to get comfortable and I think we’re ready to play through that.

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