Sheldon Keefe is going to be an NHL head coach, it’s just a matter of when a searching team makes that phone call.
It could be this summer, it could be next, but either way, I’d bet on it happening relatively soon.
Keefe is often looked upon as a Kyle Dubas product due to their history in Sault Ste Marie, and from the day the Leafs hired the latter as assistant general manager, we knew it was a matter of time before the former followed to the organization in some capacity. After all, Keefe, like Dubas, didn’t really have much left to prove in the OHL.
Toronto eventually added the 35-year-old coach this past summer to head up the Marlies. It was in the middle of an absolutely massive offseason management-wise, where the Babcock hiring provided plenty of shock, and the Lamoriello addition perhaps did even more.
But from the day the Leafs introduced Babcock, it was clear that Keefe couldn’t be in their plans long term. Committing eight years and a record amount of cash to ‘Babs’ meant the door is obviously closed on his position for the foreseeable future. And with how quickly Keefe has established himself in every level he’s coached, who knows where he’ll be by the end of that contract. We at least know it won’t be with the Leafs.
For someone so young, Keefe has done an obscene amount of winning as a bench boss. From his Junior A club in Pembroke and through his time in the Soo, his coaching records have been staggering.
Keefe was hired by the Greyhounds mid-way through the 2012-13 OHL season, one where they’d go on to finish with a 29-33-2-4 record. But after that he helped turn them into an absolute powerhouse quickly, compiling a record of 134-55-5-10 over the next three full seasons, the most recent of which had the Hounds scoring a league-leading 342 goals. Keefe was named CHL Coach of the Year.
Now that he’s with the Marlies, Keefe is again operating a team at a record pace, with a win-percentage flirting with .800 and a goal differential of +86. As our own Jeff Veillette has pointed out time and time again, this club is among the best in AHL history without question.
The Toronto Marlies are toying with the American Hockey League, March edition: pic.twitter.com/s9Xn7lyKDF
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) March 1, 2016
The Marlies have a strong roster of very talented kids, but you don’t clip along at this sort of win-percentage without getting a ton of attention, and there’s no doubt Keefe is already becoming well-known throughout the NHL. A run to the Calder Cup would draw in even more eyes.
The question now arises just how quick his ascension will be. Is there another season with the Marlies in the cards or will teams kick tires to talk to him this summer? I’d bet on the former, but after next season I’d be surprised if teams don’t start knocking down the door.
But the Leafs knew all of this when they decided to bring Keefe aboard. He is helping them in the long term by grooming these prospects now, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll be a part of the organization when the big club turns the corner.
There’s a sense among some fans that Keefe would turn away other opportunities in the future because he “owes” the Leafs for giving him his first pro gig. We know that isn’t the way it works, and it would be uncharacteristic for this management group to ever play that card. If a bigger title (and paycheck) comes his way, there’ll be nothing standing in his way.
It’s fine to be in love with this Marlies team and what they’re accomplishing, but maybe we shouldn’t get too attached to the coach. If there are some smart teams out there looking to make a change in the next 12-18 months, he likely won’t be in Toronto much longer.