The Leafs (in this case meaning Shanahan and Dubas) sort of wanted to fire Mike Babcock last spring when the Bruins put them away in game seven. They didn’t, and instead did the most common next thing: replacing the assistants around him. But it’s hard to parse out who pulled the strings most in this regard; Most would probably lean toward thinking Paul McFarland, brought in from the Panthers to help the powerplay, was a longtime Dubas target, while Dave Hakstol, a former NHL head coach himself, was more in line with Babcock.
I can’t say if that’s accurate because obviously no one is going to spill on it, but regardless, with Babcock out and Keefe coming in, it’s now worth asking “What is the point of having these guys around?”
Sheldon Keefe will take over behind the Leafs bench tonight, and he’ll be alongside these two coaches who he’s never worked with in the past. And it isn’t like they’ve been rockstars to this point either – the defence looks absurdly mistake-prone (supposedly Hakstol’s area) and the powerplay (McFarland’s brainchild) has been so bad it’s honestly hard to describe. Chalk it up to Babcock all you want, but the evidence to this point in the season suggests these other two haven’t made any kind of mark with this roster. Like, at all.
Sending Keefe in to run this team, in this market, in the state they’re in now, is a bold move with plenty of risk behind it. That was always going to be the case whenever this shoe dropped. But putting him in there without his familiar and preferred staff puts it at another level, and I’m not sure the Leafs will do it even in the medium term. In fact, it’s probably reasonable to expect that at least one of McFarland or Hakstol will be turfed in the coming week or so. They might go two for two.
There’s still a lot to sort out here with the coaching turnover, with Keefe himself needing an official NHL contract first. Then, presumably, the Leafs will decide firmly on who they want heading up the Marlies. Right now that’s A.J. MacLean, but considering Keefe has worked with MacLean since 2015 in the AHL, I can’t see how he doesn’t get the nod to come help him with the Leafs. The other somewhat-long-tenured coach with the Marlies is Rob Davison who has been with Keefe for the last two years. So yeah, both were there for the Calder Cup win in 2018.
These are Keefe’s guys, and should he run into any adversity with Hakstol/McFarland right away, the Leafs need to make a swap. They can’t be complacent. Otherwise, I think Dubas or Shanahan run the risk of putting Keefe in a situation at half-power where the Leafs can’t get over this hurdle and end up missing the playoffs, and the summer becomes a panic in Toronto with the whole city wanting the lot of them fired. Maybe this team really is in a hole and it’ll be hard for Keefe to pull them out of it anyway, but at least he should get the chance to do it on his own terms right from the beginning. For Shanahan and Dubas, the lessons learned about sunk cost and waiting too long to adjust should be fresh in their minds.