Craig Berube appears to be Sheldon Keefe’s polar opposite

Photo credit:Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
28 days ago
Craig Berube was officially named head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday afternoon, the first major development in a summer full of renovations. Berube was Toronto’s preferred choice all along, although the club did interview Gerard Gallant and Todd McLellan, which amounted to nothing more than due diligence.
Berube will be introduced formally Tuesday morning during a press conference and from there, the spectrum of first impressions will be cast across Canada’s sports media ecosystem. For the time being, it appears that Berube is Sheldon Keefe’s polar opposite, both tactically and stylistically.
There are many complexities in the modern NHL and as sportswriters, we tend to minimize the scale and difficulty required to maximize the strengths of a professional franchise. Toronto’s eight-year outlook has been rather simple, however: it is a hypertalented offensive group led by a perennial MVP candidate in Auston Matthews that can shoot the lights out during the regular season but fails to create meaningful chances during the postseason, while the power play falters with regularity.
Berube won’t have a honeymoon period and he’s not looking for one, either. A veteran of 1,054 NHL games, Berube represents a bridge between Babcock and Keefe’s strengths and pedigrees. Berube was a ferocious enforcer during his playing career, one of the most penalized players of all-time and he won’t hesitate to call out his stars, while Keefe was often protective of his players to a fault. Babcock never came close to playing in the NHL and though he won a Stanley Cup like Berube — along with two Olympic gold medals, he was eventually tuned out as his motivational tactics bordered on abuse.
Keefe, if you recall, was considered to be an in-house replacement for Mike Babcock, while being lauded for his ability to develop young players through his stellar track record with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. He was young, relatable, player-friendly and in theory, represented a shift from Mike Babcock’s hardline, autocratic style of coaching that wore the core out. Keefe largely succeeded during the regular season — his .665 winning percentage through five regular seasons will almost certainly ensure that he lands another head coaching gig in the NHL, potentially this fall.
The 43-year-old was well-liked by his players and Toronto led the NHL in 5-on-5 goals during the 2023-24 campaign, so you could make the argument that he did maximize the team’s offensive talent during the regular season. Keefe ran through 104 forward combinations during the regular season, then failed to adjust, before reverting to a hyper-defensive style of play that was antithetical to his team’s strengths in a seven-game series against the Boston Bruins.
Berube is best known for leading the St. Louis Blues to the Cup in 2019, helping the team engineer a worst-to-first turnaround during the course of the same season. He gained a reputation for operating a defensively-sound system, but that very well could’ve been the byproduct of the Blues’ roster: more simply, Berube is going to be afforded with weapons he never had with the Blues. It’ll be compelling to see what he has in store for Matthews, a 69-goal scorer that plays Selke-calibre defense and perhaps we’ll witness something analogous to Steve Yzerman’s mid-career renaissance, turning the Core Four’s offensive firebrand into a well-rounded structure that leads to championships. Or just one championship, really. If Berube leads the team to one Stanley Cup, he’ll become a deity in Toronto. That has to be the allure of this high-pressured job, one would imagine.
Toronto got its man, widely considered to be the best candidate on the market. It doesn’t necessarily mean Berube enters with an unimpeachable resume — he’s an above-average coach in the NHL, but pretending as if he’s heading to the Hall of Fame just yet doesn’t help Berube, the organization, or the media corps — ourselves included — in providing a fair assessment. We’ll learn more about Berube on Tuesday afternoon but for the time being, it appears that he’s Keefe’s polar opposite.

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