The Toronto Maple Leafs have fired head coach Mike Babcock and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe. Keefe had been coaching the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. Team president Brendan Shanahan released a statement on the move:
Today, we made the decision to relieve Mike Babcock of his coaching duties and named Sheldon Keefe our new head coach. Over parts of the last five seasons, Mike has played an integral role in changing the direction of our franchise.
Mike’s commitment and tireless work ethic has put our organization in a better place and we are extremely grateful and appreciative of the foundation he has helped us build here.
At this time, we collectively felt that it was best to make a change to Sheldon Keefe. Sheldon’s record with the Marlies in terms of development and on-ice success during his time in our organization has compelled us all to feel that he is the right person to take us to the next stage in our evolution.
Technically, Babcock has only been relieved of his duties as coach and is still under contract with the Maple Leafs. That eight-year, $50MM contract was the biggest deal ever given to an NHL coach and still has three more seasons on it. Babcock will likely be allowed to pursue other opportunities, but compensation for coaches (or executives) is no longer a part of the CBA.
Originally hired in May, 2015, Babcock was tasked with turning around a franchise that hadn’t shown much promise for years. In his first season the team tore apart the roster and sunk to the very bottom of the league, securing the first-overall pick, Auston Matthews, in the process. After that things trended upwards very quickly, with Matthews and the rest of their rookie class—including Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Connor Brown—sneaking the team into the playoffs where they valiantly battled the top seeded Washington Capitals.
Two consecutive years of first-round disappointment followed against the Boston Bruins however, with Babcock struggling to find an answer for Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. After sweeping changes to the defense corps this summer, things were going even worse.
Toronto has lost six consecutive games and enter tomorrow’s game against the Arizona Coyotes with a 9-10-4 record, something unacceptable for a group that includes three of the highest-paid forwards in the league. New captain John Tavares and Mitch Marner have both been out of the lineup due to injury, but the defense has been even worse than before even with the addition of Tyson Barrie.
Keefe will take over that underperforming roster in his first stint behind an NHL bench, but comes as perhaps the most decorated coaching prospect in hockey. Once a second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning and veteran of 125 NHL games as a player, Keefe took to coaching after an early retirement and has found success at every level.
A four-time CJHL champion as head coach, GM and owner of the Pembrooke Lumber Kings of the CJHL, Keefe was actually given his first job in the CHL when now-Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas was running the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He was named CHL coach of the year in 2015, before joining the Marlies and leading them to a Calder Cup championship in 2018.
Now, with all the pressure that comes as head coach of the Maple Leafs, Keefe will get a chance to show he is ready for the NHL. The organization better hope he is, as they need wins now if the playoffs are still a realistic goal.