Analysis | An easy solution while waiting for others

To feign surprise would be in bad taste. In the post-elimination assessment of the Toronto Maple Leafs last Monday, Sheldon Keefe looked anything but like a coach convinced of his return behind the bench next season. In this respect, his dismissal, confirmed Thursday morning, was as predictable as possible.

His team, after all, has just experienced another early elimination in the playoffs, this time after a long battle against the Boston Bruins. Someone had to pay, and the easiest target was, as usual, behind the bench.

This decision, as predictable as it may be, still leaves a strange impression as it seems to have been taken out of spite.

A dismissal statement is generally succinct. The Leafs’ one, however, contained a long paragraph listing Keefe’s accomplishments in Toronto. His incredible record of 212-97-40 in the season. The three consecutive harvests of 100 points in the rankings under his reign. His success in the American League before he was called upon to replace Mike Babcock with the big club in November 2019.

We would have wanted to promote our application to a future employer but we would not have chosen any other words. As if to apologize for having resolved to this solution, justified by a desire to find a “new voice” to lead the franchise to the “ultimate goal”, says general manager Brad Treliving.

This strange impression results in a series of questions of varying complexity. Let’s try to answer it.

Why now ?

Because changes are necessary. More than ever, the plan of Brendan Shanahan, president of hockey operations for 10 years, is in doubt. Despite eight consecutive appearances in the playoffs, the team has only won one round, a trend that began before Keefe took office. The refrain is known: a strong season concluded by a succinct run in the playoffs.

However, should we have changed coaches before? The opportunities were certainly numerous, for example after the humiliating defeat against the Canadian in 2021. However, we stayed the course.

Two years later, after the team FINALLY won a series, their first in two decades, they did nothing good in the second round. General manager Kyle Dubas was then fired, and one would have thought that would be the end for Keefe. Dubas’ successor, Brad Treliving, instead gave him a two-year contract extension.

Would a “new voice” behind the bench at this time have changed the destiny of the Leafs in 2023-2024? Maybe, maybe not.

Could Keefe have done better?


Sheldon Keefe and his players during a game at the end of April

In season, certainly not. According to Sportsnet, no one, no head coach who has coached at least 300 career games in the NHL, has had a better ranking points percentage than Sheldon Keefe (.665). On the other hand, the same Keefe is among the worst in history for the ratio of won and lost series (1-5).

Should he be held responsible for this state of affairs? It’s more nuanced. Contrary to popular belief, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander had offensive postseason success during Keefe’s reign – almost a point per game each. John Tavares too, to a lesser extent.

However, in five years, the Leafs have found themselves in a final game four times. The total performance of the “Core Four” in these circumstances: 6 points in 15 games (Tavares was injured in 2021). How much blame does the head coach deserve?

A lengthy Athletic analysis, published earlier this week, suggested that the Maple Leafs, under both Babcock and Keefe, failed in the playoffs because they denied their resolutely offensive nature in favor of a poorly controlled defensive system. In this logic, we will point the finger at the man behind the bench.

However, the coach, by definition, must deal with the squad at his disposal. When we look at the formation of the Leafs over the last five years, we invariably come back to the observation of a strangely built club. Forwards, defenders and goalkeepers have never been good at the same time.

The 2022 and 2023 teams were probably the best, despite the results we know. Ironically, Keefe is now losing his job after seeing the weakest squad of his five-year term put forth its most impressive effort.

Will there be any other changes?


Mitch Marner

Probably, but it is difficult to predict their scale.

Brendan Shanahan and Brad Treliving will speak to members of the media this Friday, alongside Keith Pelley, CEO of MLSE, the company that owns the team. We can immediately expect vibrant repentance and a promise of accountability.

No one, probably, will come forward with plans for the coming weeks and months. Because management has holes to fill at all positions, and limited financial room to maneuver to get there, while the new contracts of Matthews (13.25 million) and Nylander (11.5 million) are about to come into force.

Swap one of the members of the “ Core Four » would have the dual effect of freeing up space under the salary cap and changing the dynamic within a group that seems doomed to failure… but that’s easier said than done.

The most obvious candidates are Marner and Tavares, who are both entering the final year of their contracts. On social networks, a particularly furious fringe of supporters seems ready to exchange Marner for a handshake and a gift card to L’Équipeur. Let’s take a breath and remember that Marner is one of the most productive forwards in the NHL, and he excels defensively. His problems in the playoffs are known, but who knows if he wouldn’t experience more success away from the Toronto pot?

The Leafs, furthermore, are not a rebuilding club that wants to liquidate contracts to acquire prospects or draft picks. His best players are in their late twenties, even a little older in the case of defender Morgan Rielly. They are at the peak of their professional athletic careers. The window will not be open forever.

Perhaps Treliving will be hyperactive during the off-season. Perhaps he will also give his group one last chance.

Who will replace Sheldon Keefe?


Craig Berube, who led the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup in 2019, appears to have the best chance of replacing Sheldon Keefe.

The search is already underway, management said, and the candidates proposed by Toronto media number in the dozens. Craig Berube, who led the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup in 2019, appears to have the best chance at this point.

The deputies will soon know their fate. In this last department, we think in particular of Guy Boucher, obvious candidate to succeed his former boss.

What will happen to Keefe?

In a video posted to social media Thursday, he thanked Leafs fans, paid tribute to those who hired him and even greeted members of the media, who were quick to point out his good looks.

He can sleep peacefully. At just 43 years old, he still has a long and prolific career ahead of him.

Since he still has a two-year contract in his pocket, he could go home and spend a cushy few months without ever having to worry about his financial future. No less than 19 head coaching positions have become available since the end of the 2022-2023 season: there will be work for him in a few months, even in a few years.

However, let’s not be surprised if it bounces back quickly. Four teams (in addition to the Maple Leafs) are looking for a coach, and the Ontarian has the CV to quickly get back on track.

If Travis Green found a job in Ottawa despite a losing career record, Sheldon Keefe will certainly attract interest somewhere in the league.


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