Once friends now foes, Keefe-Tortorella will match wits as Leafs meet Jackets

Sheldon Keefe didn’t play for long under John Tortorella in Tampa Bay — just 93 of his 125 NHL games.

A high-scoring junior winger, Keefe was out the door by the time his old boss guided the Lightning to their only Stanley Cup victory in 2004.

But both men, set to meet in the league’s best-of-five qualifying round, left lasting impressions on the other.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for that guy,” said the fiery Tortorella, now head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets. “He’s one of the most competitive players I’ve coached. I didn’t coach him a lot of games. But when he played, he knew one way, and that was to play hard.”

The feeling is mutual.

“I was there through the process of that [Tampa] team growing from one year to the next to the next, eventually to the point that it was too good for me,” recalled Keefe, who’s in his first year behind an NHL bench with the Toronto Maple Leafs. “Seeing how he put all that together to eventually build it to a champion is something that, frankly, has really been the foundation of my coaching.”

Tortorella, 62, and Keefe, 39, will match wits for the first time when the Leafs and Blue Jackets open their series Sunday as part of the league’s 24-team relaunch to its pandemic-halted 2019-20 season.

The matchup is sure to be a contrast in styles — grinding, structured, defensive Columbus against high-octane, offensive-minded Toronto.

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The Blue Jackets faced a similar task in last year’s playoffs, not given much hope against the 128-point Lightning in the first round. All they did was sweep the Presidents’ Trophy winners in one of the most stunning upsets in league history.

“We know they’ll be well-prepared,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “They have a really strong identity. It’s about staying with our game and dealing with the ebbs and flows.”

Benefits of the long layoff

Toronto had three players crack the 60-point mark when the season was suspended March 12 because of COVID-19. Leafs winger William Nylander, fourth on the roster with his 59 points, registered 10 more than Blue Jackets leading scorer Pierre-Luc Dubois.

“They’re a really good defensive team,” Leafs centre Auston Matthews said. “[We can’t] get frustrated with what they’re doing … just focus on our game plan and execute it at a high level.”

Columbus will be mostly healthy — one of the few benefits of the long layoff — including the return of defenceman Seth Jones, who would have been a serious question mark with an ankle injury had the regular 16-team playoffs gone ahead as usual in April.

“No one wanted to see what happened in the world,” he said. “But for me personally, it was a little bit of a blessing.”

The Leafs, meanwhile, are coming off consecutive first-round, seven-game playoff losses to the Boston Bruins, and will be looking to write a different kind of story at Scotiabank Arena in the Toronto hub.

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Success or failure could come down to how the Leafs play in their own zone as opposed to what they offer in attack. Toronto was second in the NHL with 237 goals in the regular season, but also allowed the seventh-most at 222.

“We want to be a better defensive team,” Tavares said. “We have to deal with the momentum swings you see in a series better than we handled some things during the regular season.”

“We’re really hungry to prove ourselves,” added Toronto winger Mitch Marner.

Stayed with the program 

Columbus and Tortorella did a masterful job weathering the loss of stars Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency last summer. With a chip on their collective shoulder, everyone bought in and stayed with the program.

“It’s not about having the best bunch of individuals,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “No matter how talented you are, how skilled you are, you have to play as a team.”

That’s one of the many lessons Keefe learned from his old coach.

“He’s an ultimate competitor,” he said of Tortorella. “I would like to believe I’m a competitor. The greatest way to show somebody respect is to make sure you’re ready to compete.”

And that respect, clearly, flows both ways.

“I wish nothing but the best for that guy,” Tortorella said. “Other than this series.”

Read more at CBC.ca