When the 2021-22 season gets underway, it will be Sheldon Keefe’s first full season as the head coach of the Leafs. To say Sheldon Keefe’s tenure as the head coach of the Leafs has been eventful would be a gross understatement since no coach has been through as much tribulation in such a short window as he has.
He arrived on the scene in November 2019 to a team that was in complete disarray after wanting nothing to do with Mike Babcock and loud whispers of how he treated his players behind closed doors. The Leafs appeared to become a completely different team almost overnight and went on a run of sustained success heading into the new year, but stagnation resulted in some middling results and an amusing game of hot potato with the Panthers over who wanted the third spot in the Atlantic Division. Then that game involving a Zambini driver happened, which was soon followed by a global pandemic that shut down the season for five months. Once play resumed with the playoffs, the Leafs did their annual tradition of falling out in the first round (sorry, the “play-in round”) to the Blue Jackets in five games.
Then after a prolonged offseason and a shortened campaign beginning in January, the Leafs appeared destined for a strong year against exclusively Canadian teams. That proved to be the case since they led the North Division from start to finish, did tidy work of their competition, and (aside from two games you know just by me mentioning them), they looked solid. But you already know how that story ended and it will be retold many times over in the recently released “All or Nothing” documentary on Amazon Prime. And following a tumultuous summer where the fanbase’s anger towards the team reached a breaking point and a revolving door of personnel changed the makeup of the club, Keefe was given a two-year extension to continue manning the bench for the foreseeable future.
So here we are, approaching a season that some question whether or not this is a “Last Dance” type of year and the long-term future of both this team and the core rest squarely on the outcome of this forthcoming campaign. There are plenty of questions that will need to be answered, but one of them will surely be focused on Keefe and his overall fit with the team. Specifically: whether he has proven enough to be the right person for the job long-term.
Let me start my answer to this question by asking you, the reader, a question: can you envision Sheldon Keefe hoisting the Stanley Cup as the Leafs’ head coach?
If I were asked that, I would fairly confidently reply with “Yea, I think so.” While the last few years have seen wave after wave of embarrassing losses and the mounting frustration towards a core that has yet to advance past the first round in their half a decade together is at an all-time high, there have also been plenty of signs that Keefe’s system has been slowly taking shape and the Leafs are getting better accustomed to how he wants them to play. It is only a matter of time before the fruits of his coaching staff’s labour will finally be rewarded and translated into consistent results that include improved showing in critical situations such as the playoffs.
Let’s compare some of Keefe’s numbers to Babcock’s to see how the Leafs have progressed from one coach to the next. Bear in mind that these are only for the regular season.
|Stat||Mike Babcock (2016 up to November 20, 2019)||Sheldon Keefe (Since November 21, 2019)|
All of these stats are at 5v5
For the most part, Keefe has been an improvement over his predecessor in regards to the team’s play during the regular season. While Babcock did coach the Leafs to their best overall finish in franchise history during the 2017-18 campaign, the most recent season saw Keefe lead his team to their best start and would have likely smashed that aforementioned record had it been a full 82 game year. Combine that with the core getting better as time progresses and them not even reaching their peak, Keefe could be in for a few more seasons of a dominant regular-season club for the next few years. Granted, Keefe was also at the helm of a team that went through a prolonged struggle on the man advantage, which played a part in their most recent playoff disappointment, but that could be more indicative of his staff and not his strategy. Then again, these same issues have persisted as far back as the 2018-19 campaign so these lacklustre results may be more towards the players’ overall lack of creativity.
While coaches have done more than enough to get their teams to the playoffs, they each have also been unable to overcome the elusive hump that has plagued the Leafs for nearly two decades: getting past the first round. Of his three ‘playoff runs” manning the bench, Babcock’s best was the 2018-19 season where the Leafs were the superior team throughout the majority of the series and had the led three different times, yet blew two opportunities to close it out and got demolished in the decisive game. Meanwhile, Keefe coached one series where the Leafs were #Goalied and got shutout twice (including the do-or-die contest), and another that saw them cruise to a 3-1 lead but proceed to complete the biggest choke job in franchise history.
The other area that the two coaches share in common is questionable tactics coming back to haunt them at the worst possible time. Babcock’s stubbornness resulted in him refusing to shuffle the lines in a meaningful way, being reluctant to lean on his best players in critical moments, or scratching a hometown kid in the season opener (yes, I’m still pissed about that one), all of which played a factor into his eventual dismissal in 2019. Keefe has been more open to juggling the line combinations and has had a stronger sense on which goalie to lean on, but both 2020 and 2021 saw similar issues arise where he took too long to make a meaningful change (with the most egregious being this past year when Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner struggled offensively). Whether that be a hesitancy to break up what had long worked or blind confidence that it will work, it was part of the reason why the Leafs were unable to close out both of the aforementioned series.
While both coaches have used different approaches that have garnered the same results, there is one key difference that has resulted in Keefe being currently in charge and not Babcock: Keefe is always looking ahead.
When watching the “All or Nothing” documentary, one of my main takeaways is that he is constantly dialled in and stays on the ball in building his club into the mindset of one that can do serious damage in the postseason. One example is him telling Jimmy Vesey directly to his face that his game is ‘vanilla’ and that he wants to see the player provide more value to the club or risk an extended stay in the press box. Then there was his chat with Jason Spezza assessing the team’s fragile state and Keefe’s insistence on ensuring the Leafs maintain their focus or risk another short spring.
One particular aspect that the documentary showcased was Keefe’s keen ability to see the bigger picture in regards to his team’s direction. Rob Worsoff put it best when he told TLN’s Nick Barden the following:
“Keefe had a real ability to see the forest for the trees. There were times where he was hitting the panic button when the Leafs were in first place, and everybody else was like ‘What wrong with this guy? We’re in first place, what more does he want from us?’ He seemed to be able to tell with great clarity where he needed improvement.“
Keefe is never satisfied with how things currently stand and always wants to see his team make significant strides in their approach every day. It’s part of why he has worked closely with Kyle Dubas throughout both of their association through the hockey world onto the biggest stage and what has made the Leafs’ current iteration the best run in quite some time. And despite two consecutive years of the team retreating to old habits and falling short in spectacular fashion, Keefe was rewarded with an extension on his deal rather than having his future beyond 2021-22 be up in the air.
To answer the question posed in the title of this piece, Sheldon Keefe has proven enough to remain the Leafs’ head coach for the foreseeable future.
Keefe has been an overall improvement over Babcock in a number of areas, including his approach to the game, a willingness to make adjustments more often than not, and being able to see the bigger picture rather than get caught up in the day-to-day. There is no sugar coating the reality that the Leafs still have yet to advance past the opening round and had suffered through some of the franchise’s most embarrassing moments with him at the helm, but the overall package that comes with Keefe has seen more encouraging traits than concerning ones. And with a documentary on Amazon Prime providing a glimpse into what goes on behind closed doors on a daily basis, he has cemented himself as the right man for the job for the Leafs in its current iteration.
While the current state of the core and how the past half-decade has unfolded has put the impending future of the club in a precarious state, the one area that should be certain for now is who will be calling the shots on the bench.