The Leafs’ less-than-graceful exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 23rd has now been well-documented, and enough has been said about the future of current head coach Mike Babcock that all we can do now is wait and see if anything comes of it. On the Babcock front, at least.
If we’re looking for more noise on the coaching front, look no further than the Toronto Marlies, now one game away from sweeping their second-round series against the Cleveland Monsters. The AHL club is now well into a second consecutive playoff run, and appear poised to challenge for back-to-back Calder Cup championships.
And that’s where things get interesting.
Marlies bench boss Sheldon Keefe’s name has been thrown around for weeks now as a potential suitor for a National Hockey League coaching job – particularly since it was reported that Keefe was ironing out a historic deal to stay in Toronto; a rich deal indicative not just of Keefe’s elevated paygrade, but also of his potential, in the Leafs’ system and beyond.
The deal has been reported as having an out-clause should Keefe land an NHL position, and as the Marlies continue to tear through the American Hockey League once again, the Leafs – and Kyle Dubas in particular – will have some decisions to make. If Sheldon Keefe is able to guide this Marlies team to a second Calder Cup championship, he may very well force the Leafs’ hand if they wish to keep him.
1. Sheldon Keefe Is Promoted To An Assistant Role With The Leafs
I’m not a betting man, but I’d wager that this move is more probable than some think. Keefe’s name is already being thrown around throughout the league – especially in connection to Buffalo – and it’s not unlikely that lucrative offers to coach in The Show might force the Leafs to approach Keefe with a counteroffer.
The offer in this scenario is to man the Leafs’ bench under Mike Babcock – and maybe breathe down his neck a little. It’s hard to imagine that Leafs management are happy with how their season ended, and some internal pressure might be just what the doctor ordered for Mike Babcock, who – at the very least – is a good coach with some flaws, but one who could maybe benefit from feeling a little bit mortal. Pencil this scenario in as one that’s not impossible to imagine, whether the Marlies win it all or not.
2. Sheldon Keefe Is The Leafs’ Bench Boss Next Season
Is this the most likely scenario? Absolutely not. But couple another first round exit with some interesting whispers from Edmonton, and we at very least should be having this conversation.
This scenario arises from two potential situations. The first would be the Leafs outright firing Mike Babcock, and replacing him with Sheldon Keefe. If Keefe becomes a hot enough commodity for an NHL job this summer, it’s not impossible to imagine Kyle Dubas valuing his guy too much to let him go.
The other aforementioned potential situation – even less likely, but not impossible – would see Mike Babcock resign in favor of rejoining his old friend Ken Holland in Edmonton, with a chance to coach Connor McDavid and the Oilers.
Let’s chalk this one up to “unlikely, but you can’t deny the possibility”. With the combination of Keefe’s efforts and Babcock’s potential aspirations, this is certainly still a conversation worth having.
3. Sheldon Keefe Lands An NHL Job Elsewhere
Imagine Keefe wins back to back Calder Cups and the Leafs let him go coach Buffalo.
— Ryan (@ryanfancey) May 5, 2019
I’d give this scenario a slight advantage over the Leafs retaining Keefe as an assistant coach at this point. To be clear, this would be a huge loss for the Leafs. But again, Keefe’s fate might not entirely be in their hands.
If the Leafs aren’t willing to part ways with Mike Babcock – assuming he doesn’t leave on his own accord – and the offer to stay on as an assistant simply isn’t alluring enough, it’s quite possible that Sheldon Keefe’s services will be taken elsewhere come the fall. A Calder Cup win would make this significantly more likely – almost guaranteed, arguably – but Leafs fans should certainly be mentally prepared for the possibility that Keefe will simply elect to move on and move up.
4. Sheldon Keefe Continues To Coach The Marlies
It’s hard to say how realistic this one is.
Again, back-to-back Calder Cup titles might force this one into wishful thinking territory as the Leafs enter another season with Mike Babcock on the hot seat. However, it’s not impossible to see would likely be the best possible outcome here, if you’re Leafs management. Keefe continues to work with your budding prospects, and you give Mike Babcock one final go-around with this core to produce results or pack his bags.
That being said, the only incentive for Keefe to stay, in this case, is a precedent-setting AHL paycheck, coupled with the potential to be next in line as Leafs bench boss if Babcock falters. But in the end, that’s all up to chance. The Leafs may enjoy a deep run of their own next fall, and all of the speculation surrounding Mike Babcock may be silenced for good. Keefe’s window to land an NHL gig may close, depending on what the coaching shuffle looks like this time next year.
It’s hard to see this scenario as anything but a potential missed opportunity for Sheldon Keefe, and one he may not be willing to risk.
On both the Babcock and Keefe fronts, then, the watch continues – and the Marlies keep on rolling.