These are Sheldon Keefe’s Maple Leafs now.
Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who hired Mike Babcock in 2015 in a move intended to reinvigorate a moribund franchise, fired his hand-picked head coach on Wednesday.
“It wasn’t an easy conversation to have. It wasn’t pleasant,” Shanahan told media in Glendale, Ariz. “Days like today are not. But it was what we felt was important for the club. Once you realize that there’s something that you should do and have to do, then it’s best to act on it.”
Keefe, who has coached the AHL Toronto Marlies since 2015, inherits a Maple Leafs group that has aspirations of winning the Stanley Cup. But they are well out of a playoff spot with a 9-10-4 record and are on a six-game losing streak, with special teams that are among the worst in the league.
“We believe in Sheldon, obviously, in making this decision,” Shanahan said. “And so we’re still optimistic that we’re going to get it back on track.”
Babcock had his ups as coach: He guided the Leafs to record point totals (105 in 2017-18) and to three consecutive playoff appearances. But he had his downs: Three consecutive early exits from the playoffs, and the current stuttering start to this season, for which he took responsibility in a statement Wednesday.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t have the start to the year we wanted to, that’s on me,” said Babcock, who was behind the bench for two Olympic gold medals with Canada and one Stanley Cup in Detroit. “I want to thank the fans, I want to thank the media, I want to thank the city. It was spectacular. I loved every second of it.
“And I wish the new group, nothing but success. Morgan Rielly has been there the whole time. I can’t thank him enough. And all the players I got an opportunity to coach. It’s been fantastic and I wish them nothing but success.”
The coaching change happened on the one-year anniversary of the St. Louis Blues replacing Mike Yeo with Craig Berube. The underachieving Blues dropped to last overall in January, then went on to win the Stanley Cup.
The Leafs have struggled all year. The season started with forward Zach Hyman and defenceman Travis Dermott on the injured list, and with a roster that was almost half made up of newcomers to the team. There never appeared to be any chemistry as new assitant coaches Dave Hakstol (defence, penalty kill) and Paul McFarland (offence, power play) brought systems that failed. Babcock seemed to feud with veteran Jason Spezza, scratching the local product for the home opener in what would have been his first game as a Leaf.
Even defenceman Tyson Barrie, the big off-season acquired from Colorado for his usually reliable offence, has been an early disappointment.
“It really just came down to the last couple of weeks and it got to the point where (GM Kyle Dubas and I) spoke in the last 48 hours, and I just felt that it was something that needed to be done and Kyle felt the same way,” Shanahan said. “I had been the one that hired Mike, I thought that was very important for me to get on a plane and fly (to Phoenix) and face Mike and be with Kyle to tell him myself that we had made a decision together that we thought was in the best interest of the club.”
It was clear when the Leafs lost to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs that Babcock was on the hot seat. Dubas didn’t give Babcock a clear vote of confidence in the days that followed the team’s elimination, saying he wanted to more time to review and reflect. Eventually, the vote of confidence came, but it was also clear that Babcock’s coaching style was under the microscope.
The players said the right things about taking responsibility for the losing as they embarked on this six-game road trip. But the joy they once played with had vanished. And they showed very little interest in playing Babcock’s grinding style of hockey — a style that may ultimately win in the playoffs, but is not the way the team is constructed.
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“Our game is not really meeting our expectations,” Shanahan said. “We’re mistake-prone on defence. The attention to details (isn’t) there and even the explosive offence our team was known for has been missing for a while now.
“So there’s a lot of work for Sheldon to do and there’s a lot of work for the players to do — and they understand that — but we really believe in them. We believe in the players that we have here.”
Dubas first hired Keefe, who has a controversial past with former agent David Frost, to coach the Soo Greyhounds. Keefe embraced Dubas’s use of analytics when the Leafs GM ran the OHL team. Keefe had been coach of the Pembroke Lumber Kings in the junior-A Central Canada Hockey League, winning five straight league championships and the 2011 Royal Bank Cup as national champions. He also won the Calder Cup with the Marlies in 2018.
Keefe has coached 13 of the players on the current Leafs roster, including William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen. Some of them, like Andreas Johnsson, Frederik Gauthier and Dermott, were part of Calder Cup team.
Shanahan praised Keefe’s record, “the amount of players that play on the Toronto Maple Leafs that have played with Sheldon, for Sheldon, with the Marlies, the job he’s done in developing players for us, some early draft picks, some very late-round draft picks — and then just his success.”
“He’s had success, basically, everywhere he’s coached.”
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