Wednesday afternoon, the Toronto Maple Leafs fired their now former head coach, Mike Babcock, and promoted Sheldon Keefe as the new head coach of the Leafs from his previous head coaching duties with the Toronto Marlies (AHL).
It’s a move that everyone likely saw coming, but this soon? That’s impressive.
Babcock was adamant in his coaching abilities and in his belief in himself as “the greatest coach who ever lived” (paraphrasing, obviously), but could not salvage his hubris when it mattered most– right now.
Toronto is currently 9-10-4 (22 points) on the season, 5th place in the Atlantic Division and outside of a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Luckily for the Leafs, the Pittsburgh Penguins (11-7-3, 25 points), Philadelphia Flyers (10-7-4, 24 points) and Buffalo Sabres (10-8-3, 23 points) aren’t that far ahead of them in the standings for now.
It’s the perfect time to be bold and make a move if you’re looking to provide a short-term spark that will hopefully re-ignite some cooling embers and launch the Maple Leafs back into playoff contention at the very least– if not Stanley Cup contention, as many have expected for a few years now before Toronto’s General Manager, Kyle Dubas, was forced to spend about $40.489 million on William Nylander, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner while somehow forgetting the importance of a defense and a backup goaltender in the process.
For a team that used to employ a coach that notoriously bet on himself and his process for better or worse, well, they’re betting heavily on the salary cap ceiling to make a significant jump by the time a new national TV rights distribution package in the United States is negotiated in 2022.
But that’s a separate discussion entirely.
For now, we’re left in the wake of a post-Babcock Leafs Era and what it means for the Boston Bruins– Toronto’s biggest rival most recently.
The 56-year-old former head coach in Toronto was in his 5th year of an eight-year, $50.000 million contract with the Maple Leafs.
Toronto went 29-42-11 in the 2015-16 season, which led them to drafting Matthews with the 1st overall pick in the 2016 Draft.
The following year, Babcock and the Maple Leafs improved to 40-27-15, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2013, before losing in six games to the Washington Capitals in the 2017 First Round.
Then history repeated itself as the Leafs went 49-26-7 in the 2017-18 regular season before losing in seven games to Boston in the 2018 First Round.
From there it was a broken record for Toronto– a 46-28-9 effort in 2018-19 led to another First Round matchup with Boston and another Game 7 loss on the road to the Bruins in the 2019 First Round.
This season, through 23 games, the Leafs have six wins in regulation. They have nine total.
Babcock hasn’t won a playoff series since he was still with the Detroit Red Wings in 2013. He hasn’t led a team back to the Stanley Cup Final since losing in 2009 with Detroit in the Red Wings-Penguins rematch from 2008.
He may be “Canada’s Coach”, but he isn’t “Canada’s favorite team’s head coach” anymore.
Enter Keefe, a 39-year-old, from Brampton, Ontario– a short drive from Toronto– emerging as “The Chosen One”.
Hired by Toronto to lead the Marlies on June 8, 2015, Keefe had a respectable first season with Toronto’s AHL affiliate in 2015-16, notching a 54-16-5-1 record (wins-losses-overtime losses-shootout losses, for those of you who aren’t AHL savvy).
Keefe pushed his team all the way to the Eastern Conference Final in the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs (his rookie season as an AHL coach, mind you) before the Marlies succumbed to the Hershey Bears in five games.
In 2016-17, Keefe coached his team to a 42-29-4-1 record and a North Division Final appearance in the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs that resulted in a Game 7 loss to the Syracuse Crunch.
That loss didn’t set the Marlies back, but instead motivated Keefe and his team as they marched to a 54-18-2-2 record in 2017-18 and a 2018 Calder Cup Final appearance.
They defeated the Texas Stars in seven games and captured Toronto’s first championship in ice hockey since the NHL’s Maple Leafs raised the Stanley Cup in 1967.
Though it was only the AHL, it proved that something was in the works.
Dubas’ masterplan was coming to fruition as the analytics guru rose to power– taking over as GM of the Maple Leafs with Lou Lamoriello’s departure in the 2018 offseason.
Keefe had followed Dubas from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL) to the Maple Leafs organization in 2015, but Babcock stood in the way of his destiny, it seemed.
Babcock was Lamoriello’s choice and fit with Brendan Shanahan’s “Shanaplan”.
Keefe fit with Dubas in the contemporary game, “Shanaplan” be damned.
In 2018-19, Keefe led the Marlies to a 39-24-9-4 record and an Eastern Conference Final appearance for the 2nd year in a row in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Though the Marlies lost to the Charlotte Checkers in six games, one thing was for certain– Keefe had it going in the minor league.
It’s not every day that a coach is able to make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final in his rookie season, let alone in three of his first four full seasons as an AHL bench boss.
Up until his promotion to the NHL, Keefe amassed a 10-2-2-1 record with the Marlies this season.
They were 1st in the North Division at the time of his departure for the big league.
In 320 career AHL games with the Marlies, Keefe collected a 199-89-22-9 record and a .622 winning percentage in the process– plus one Calder Cup championship in 2018.
So, what does this mean for the Bruins?
A lot when you factor in advantages and disadvantages for each team in the promotion of Keefe from the Marlies to the Leafs.
First, for Toronto, the advantages of having Keefe for a potential playoff matchup with Boston.
The core of Toronto’s current roster (Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly and even Frederik Andersen) has lost in the First Round in at least one of the last three postseasons (Tavares is the only member who hasn’t had to endure three-straight soul crushing First Round departures under Babcock’s reign).
Yes, this may seem bad, but it actually speaks volumes for their playoff experience.
This team is hungry– right from its core– and its fanbase, its front office and its backyard media wants to win sooner rather than later.
Plus, Nylander’s 2nd season in the AHL (although it was only a partial season) overlapped with Keefe’s time behind the bench of the Marlies, so there’s some familiarity between one of the four highest paid players on the Leafs and their head coach.
Additionally, Kapanen, Hyman and others have experience with Keefe and the Marlies’ system.
There’s enough familiarity there for something– potentially something dangerous.
Now for the advantages for Boston.
History is on their side. Boston’s core (Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask) has shown its capable of making another Cup run (even with an aging captain and 1-2 centers).
Bruins head coach, Bruce Cassidy, remains a constant and in control.
Boston missed the playoffs in 2015 and 2016, but Claude Julien was still their head coach then, so the combination of Cassidy, plus Chara, Bergeron and Krejci’s leadership made for an easier transition into getting the team back into a “top of their game” playoff performer (and eventual Cup contender in 2019).
This isn’t a luxury the Leafs have, where the team’s looking to get back into postseason contention, period, let alone win a series.
Toronto missed the playoffs in their first year with Babcock, but made it for the last three years and lost each year in the First Round.
This leads to Toronto’s disadvantages for another potential postseason meeting with the Bruins.
History is not on Toronto’s side and neither are the statistics.
Yes, Dubas’ 2nd favorite thing in the world– analytics– could get in the way of his 1st favorite thing in the world– bringing the Cup back to the Maple Leafs organization.
As things stand, the Leafs have a greater chance of missing the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs than making them currently.
Toronto– the city, the fans, the players, the front office and the media– wants to win right now. There’s no room for excuses (even if they’re legitimate, like taking one’s time to formulate a defense via prospects or trades and supplementing Andersen in the crease with a legitimate backup goaltender).
But, whereas Cassidy inherited broken pieces in Boston that were addressed and revamped as the team went from outside the playoffs two years in a row to making three consecutive postseason appearances under Cassidy in his head coaching tenure with the B’s– addressing the need for depth down the lineup in the process without the likes of a highly touted free agent acquisition– Keefe and the Leafs have the majority of this season to work on that necessary synergy with a better offense (on paper).
Cassidy was named interim head coach of the Bruins in Feb. 2017. Boston was ousted by the Ottawa Senators in six games in the 2017 First Round and lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games in the 2018 Second Round prior to their 2019 Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Keefe has Tavares, Matthews and Marner (when healthy) to unleash on any given night and could very well pull a turnaround in one season a la the St. Louis Blues last season (who beat the Bruins in the Final in Game 7 at TD Garden) or the Penguins in 2009 (when Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien midseason and won the Cup) and 2016 (when Mike Sullivan replaced Bylsma midseason and won the Cup).
In that sense, recent history is actually on Toronto’s side.
Boston had some growing pains to go with their dramatic improvement, but the Leafs are built to counteract that pain if Keefe can find a better way to manage it than Babcock did.
As it is, Cassidy is 130-55-27 in 212 games with Boston from 2017-present (good enough for a .613 winning percentage), but 207-128-21-24 in 380 games with the Providence Bruins (AHL) from 2011-16 (.545 winning%).
Babcock was 173-133-45 in 351 games with the Maple Leafs from 2015-19 (.493 winning%).
Keefe gets the final say and has his .622 winning% in 320 games with the Marlies going for him as he steps into the biggest role behind any bench in the National Hockey League.
Playoffs or not, the rest of this season is about to be a wild ride for the Maple Leafs and their fans.
Bruins fans be worried or not.