One assistant out, one assistant in for Mike Babcock and his staff. Sources including both Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported earlier that the Toronto Maple Leafs were expected to announce that Paul McFarland has been hired by team, and the team did just that not long after. This news comes soon after the official announcement that D.J. Smith has been hired away from the team to become the new head coach of the Ottawa Senators.
While these two hires come in close proximity, they may not actually be connected at all. Smith worked with defensemen and the penalty kill units for Toronto, while McFarland ran the power play for the Florida Panthers last season. In fact, McFarland played for the Windsor Spitfires when Smith was an assistant and later served as an assistant himself under Smith with the Oshawa Generals to begin his coaching career. McFarland was likely set to re-join his mentor with the Maple Leafs before Smith made the decision to depart for Ottawa. The real driving force behind McFarland’s hire is the anticipated departure of Jim Hiller, who ran Toronto’s power play this season. Hiller was given permission to seek other opportunities and as of earlier this month was linked to the Nashville Predators. Regardless of where he ends up, he was not expected back in Toronto and certainly won’t be now that McFarland is in the fold.
McFarland, 33, is more than just the beneficiary of opportunity in this situation, though. The former head coach of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs is considered a rising star in the coaching ranks and his dismissal from the Panthers was tied more to his connection to former head coach Bob Boughner than his performance. Actually, Florida ranked second in the NHL this season on the power play at 26.8% and received a greater proportion of their goals man-up than any other team in the league. McFarland did an excellent job, but seemingly didn’t fit into the plans of new head coach Joel Quenneville. Florida’s loss is Toronto’s gain, as the Ontario native returns home and brings his power play expertise with him to a roster chock full of potent offensive talent.
Even with McFarland’s addition, there will still be speculation that the departures of Smith and Hiller will leave the Maple Leafs in need of another coach. The most obvious option would be current AHL head coach Sheldon Keefe, a popular name in coaching circles who is currently guiding the Toronto Marlies through another deep playoff run. Toronto does not want to let Keefe leave the organization, which could mean they choose to promote him to Babcock’s staff, where he can take over some of the duties left behind in Smith’s absence.