Sheldon Keefe ran his first morning skate as head coach of the Maple Leafs in preparation for Thursday night’s game against the Arizona Coyotes not long after general manager Kyle Dubas spoke for the first time about the firing of Mike Babcock a day earlier.
“It’s not an optimal time to have someone new coming in and run the bench and run the program,” Dubas told the media assembled at the Gila River Arena in Glendale. “No practice and right into the game today so I think it’s going to take some time and require some patience.”
But even though Dubas said the Leafs had shown signs of coming out of their funk — they’re currently on a six-game losing streak (0-5-1) — he thought the time was right to change coaches.
“I just felt that the level of our ups and downs, our consistency, and just kind of reading off the players, watching them, how they were reacting to different things, that it was probably just time to potentially go down this path,” said Dubas.
Sitting beside him was team president Brendan Shanahan, who had hired Babcock in 2015 and was involved in the discussions to fire him.
“I don’t know if I characterize that a coach has lost the room,” said Shanahan, a Hall of Famer as a player. “I just think that that from a player’s perspective, you could see the frustration in their eyes. I really thought even in our last game (a 4-2 loss to Vegas) that the players were working really hard but there was a sort of a belief missing in them.”
They both believe Keefe — who has coached the AHL Marlies for the past five years including to a Calder Cup title in 2018 — is the right man for the job.
“Our whole goal as a program is to is to have each individual player reach his maximum potential,” said Dubas. “You’re hopeful that Sheldon can take them to a new level and a different level. And that’s what we’re looking forward to getting to work on today and rolling from there.”
Keefe’s record with the Marlies was 199-89-31 (.668 winning percentage) and included three trips to the conference finals and the Calder Cup championship.
Babcock was 173-133-45 as coach of the Leafs, the team’s fifth-winningest of all-time. While he gave the franchise credibility during its crucial rebuild and led them to the post-season three times, the Leafs haven’t won a playoff round since 2004.
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