Dates, awards finalists, opting out, new faces, exhibition schedule and the Ottawa Senators rebrand.
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.
The DTFR Duo talk a little college hockey, other stats from the week, the CWHL folding and NWHL expansion opportunities, as well as hand out more awards and a look at how things should sort out in the Atlantic Division for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Original Trio splices together some thoughts on the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame Inductees, Dan Bylsma, the 2018 Draft, recent trades and John Tavares. Go check out your local museums while you’re at it. It’s the offseason, surely you have nothing going on.
Nick checks in with Colby Kephart and Frank Fanelli (of Student Union Sports) on Radko Gudas’s suspension, the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Chance The Rapper’s SNL skit for the ages. Also discussed, the overabundance of outdoor games featuring teams that are obviously stuck in a revolving door of outdoor games.
And be sure to check out our newest extension of the product, DTFR Overtime, this week where Nick retroactively wrote about a topic from last week’s episode.
The Falcon Hockey program at Bowling Green State University has been a topic of debate for the last several years. Has their internal rebuild been successful? Have they returned to their historic, dominant form? Are they good or are they great?
There is a fine line between a good hockey team and a true contender. Good hockey teams in the NCAA win 15-20 games a year, always finish in the top half of their conference, and are capable of winning a post-season series. Yet, their trophy case is left empty and their name vacant from the NCAA Hockey Tournament bracket. If you’re a follower of college hockey, you can name a few teams that fit this mold, but Bowling Green is definitely one of them.
Under Head Coach Chris Bergeron, the Falcons have gradually improved over time. There is an obvious answer to the question regarding their internal rebuild. It has been successful and it continues to be. The only problem is, how exactly do you measure success? In the beginning, it was all about gaining an identity and following the mystical “process” that is often referred to by the team and coaching staff. Fortunately for the program, after several years of good recruiting, expectations begin to change.
Three or so years into the new era, there has to be an adjustment to what is considered success. The coaches, team, and fans eventually want to see results on the scoreboard. During the 09-10 season (before the coaching change), the Falcons only mustered five wins, an incredibly poor result for any college hockey program. The 11-12 season saw 14 wins, including the historic run to Joe Louis Arena in the dwindling years of the CCHA. The 14-15 season was a breakout year, with the Orange and Brown reaching the 20-win marker for the first time since the 94-95 campaign. Twenty wins is good, especially when paired with positive post-season results, but this equation is still missing something. The past three seasons, Bowling Green has earned a +0.500 record, won a first-round playoff series, and then ended it without any hardware.
The Falcons desperately need to take the next step. They may never truly regain the dominance of their historic teams, but how can you expect them to match the talents of George McPhee, Dan Bylsma, and Rob Blake? This team needs to learn who they are now and what they are capable of. To put it bluntly, they need to get their hands on a championship trophy because it has been far too long since they have done so. At this point in their rebuild, this is the only true measure of success and they are right on the cusp of it. Just last season, the Orange and Brown faced a devastating double-OT loss to Michigan Tech in the conference finals. In their current campaign, they are 6-4-3, but are just one point out of first place in the WCHA. With their great depth on offense, overall solid play on defense, and a tandem of Ryan Bednard and Eric Dop in net, this could be the team to do it.
Is it time for Bowling Green to be great? The short answer is yes. The staff has dedicated themselves to this program and have turned it in the right direction. Although the previous few seasons have been positive, players and fans alike are left wanting more. The Falcons are good, but with just one outstanding season, they can be great. Six wins through 11 games isn’t exactly stellar, but they are currently 11th in the Pairwise Rankings (which determine NCAA Tournament eligibility). If they continue to develop as a team, earning positive results along the way, why not them? Why not now? It’s time for the Falcons to respond to the bell and prove that they can be great.
NHL Insider for The Athletic and Editor-In-Chief for The Athletic Detroit, Craig Custance joined the show this week to discuss his new book Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches available on Amazon or wherever books are still sold. Custance and the Original Trio discussed his book, the Detroit Red Wings and who they’d pick as head coach of Team USA.
33-37-12, 78 points, 8th in Atlantic (‘16-‘17)
Unsigned: Cody Franson
Offseason Analysis: The Buffalo Sabres had a busy offseason to say the least, as both General Manager Tim Murray and Head Coach Dan Byslma were fired following the club’s sixth-straight season missing the playoffs. The search for a new GM led Owner Terry Pegula to former player Jason Botterill, who continued the trend of hiring former players by offering former Sabres great Phil Housley his first NHL head coaching job. Housley was an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators for the past four seasons, helping to lead the club to its first Stanley Cup Finals appearance. This was a smart move to hire a former blue liner to lead the team, as he should bring Buffalo a smooth-skating team that allows the defensemen, Rasmus Ristolainen in particular, to carry the puck up ice similar to Nashville’s style.
The Sabres have struggled defensively for years now, so it was no surprise that Botterill’s first goal was to fix that issue. He started by signing KHL free agent defenseman Viktor Antipin, but didn’t stop there: he also acquired Nathan Beaulieu from Montreal for a 3rd round pick. Botterill still saw the need for a top pair defenseman, so he traded Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and a 3rd round pick to the Minnesota Wild for Marco Scandella, fan-favorite Jason Pominville and a 4th round pick.
Although Botterill addressed the Sabres’ defensive issues early in summer, he didn’t neglect his other positions. Among his most important additions are Benoit Pouliot, Chad Johnson and Jacob Josefson.
All in all, the Sabres’ offseason look pretty solid. They didn’t go out and overspend on any major free agents.
That being said, they still have a big hole among their top 6 forwards. Specifically, the need for a left wing is paramount, and it has top prospects Justin Bailey, Nicholas Baptiste and Alexander Nylander all itching for the chance to play with the big boys. I personally believe Nylander stands the best chance. He is a natural left wing and has added some needed muscle this offseason. A solid camp from him could see him playing on the left with Jack Eichel or Ryan O’Reilly.
Offseason Grade: B+
Overall, the Sabres had a tremendous offseason and I think the fans will see a better product on the ice this season. With a healthy Eichel and strong defense, I think the Sabres should be a playoff team.
Nick and Connor discuss the ongoing First Round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs with incredible analysis of the Nashville Predators unbelievable sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks, as well as an in depth look at the Buffalo Sabres and where they go from here after relieving Tim Murray and Dan Blysma from their respective duties as general manager and head coach. Selke Trophy and Calder Trophy winners are predicted based on the finalists.