SIMMONS: Coach, GM, jobs on the line as Leafs training camp begins


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Everyone’s job is at stake.

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That’s largely the subtext of the Maple Leafs’ training camp opening.

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Kyle Dubas is not contracted for next year and there are no offers in the near future.

Sheldon Keefe is the punters’ favorite to become the first NHL coach to be fired this season. Brendan Shanahan has a deal — but fundamentally, his future as Leafs president is tied to his chosen general manager, and therefore the GM’s coach of choice.

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It’s likely three in or three out and the uncertainty surrounding the Maple Leafs is at a modern high, starting with those making decisions, more internal pressure than before and perhaps a clear message from the Maple Leafs’ normally calm owners – assuming , Bell and Rogers are talking to each other – is that great seasons followed by short playoffs are no longer rewarded.

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Camp officially begins Thursday morning with practice on the ice and the usual September routine. But the many challenges for coach Keefe will continue over the next few months. He has a collection of pieces that don’t necessarily go together. He has goalkeepers who have been left behind by teams that wanted to win. He has a defense already thinned by an injury to Timothy Liljegren and the goofy non-contract status of Rasmus Sandin. He has a third line where Ilya Mikheyev has gone to Vancouver and Pierre Engvall is injured to start the preseason. He has a second line where good center John Tavares and good right winger William Nylander play well, but not so well together. They’re like dance partners who miss their steps – players with skill, but not necessarily a line that worries everyone they play against.

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And that’s exactly how the camp begins.

There is an old expression among coaches. If you can’t decide which goalie will start your next game – and Leaf’s plan early on is to split up the goalkeeping game – then you don’t have a starting goalie.

Keefe’s plan is to rotate Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov in the early stages and have a first competition of equals: last man standing or last man sane wins.

And please don’t tell me Erik Kallgren or Joseph Woll are ready for the NHL. Nothing on her resume suggests that this is true at this point in history.

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Keefe’s easiest decision to start with is to get his first line down on paper. Auston Matthews will center Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting. They like that. He likes that. That’s the defending Hart Trophy champion in line with the first-team right winger All-Star and a rookie-of-the-year finalist. That’s 22 minutes per game, give or take power play time or penalty time for Marner, which Keefe doesn’t have to worry about.

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That’s a line equal to or better than any other in the Eastern Conference.

Keefe’s other challenges are varied, starting with the team’s defensive structure. More than with Jack Campbell in goal, more than with Frederik Andersen, the Leafs need to be more responsible defensively than they have been in years. They must be their goalie’s best friends.

Dubas spoke about it when we sat down the other day. The Leafs can’t play like they have Dominik Hasek in the net and are hoping to be saved. They need to be smarter on their own side, be tougher in front of the net and take away trajectories. If they learned anything from their seven-game loss to Tampa Bay last May, it wasn’t that Andrei Vasilevskiy beat them: It was the team game, the close game, the shooting range game the Lightning played, the Toronto in the Play 6 and 2 eliminated 7.

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The Leafs need to use more of that to make the next move, and it’s not about scoring 115, it’s more about how you score those points.

And part of building this equation is having a third line that works. David Kampf’s pencils are a good defensive winning faceoff center in the third line. Now it’s about who he’s playing with. In the past Mikheyev fit in there and sometimes Engvall too. The year before they had released Zach Hyman from this series.

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Alex Kerfoot, one of Keefe’s favorite players, is always available for any job the manager asks of him. That’s Kerfoot’s advantage: he’s the Leafs’ craftsman. He could end up playing alongside Tavares and Nylander. He could land at fight. He could end up as too expensive fourth liner.

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The task for Keefe – and any successful NHL coach – is to take 20 or more pieces and designate different working roles for each of them. And then collectively push them all to success.

He will push the players. Dubas will push Keefe. That’s how it works around this team. Dubas argues with Keefe almost daily. Keefe argues back. Voices get loud. This is the origin and strength of their relationship. You leave nothing unsaid. And the next day they do it all again.

“We have a lot of great debates,” Dubas said recently. “That’s the beauty of our relationship.”

A relationship now held together by pressure and circumstance. The heat was higher than in those competitive years.

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