Sheldon Keefe is out of answers in his potential closing act

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
1 month ago
Sheldon Keefe’s days with the Toronto Maple Leafs appeared to be numbered following Monday’s end-of-year press conference. Perhaps we can ditch the plural tense. Keefe took the podium to address the assembled reporters, along with a legion of fans and other journalists watching on livestreams and didn’t project much confidence during his opening remarks.
Thanks for your patience. Today is always a difficult day. Really the worst day of the season, it should feel that way when you don’t meet expectations and today is certainly one of those days.
We’re in the results business here. We didn’t get results and we haven’t met expectations. As head coach, I take responsibility for that. When you have a team that has expectations and have goals in mind and you don’t reach them, it’s not a good feeling. My job as a head coach is to find solutions and chart a path ahead for the group to come through and to succeed at the most important time of year and we haven’t done that. I do feel a year ago we took a step in the right direction as a group. I loved the resolve we showed in this series in Game 5 and 6 in particular that gave us a chance to compete in Game 7, but clearly we didn’t do enough and that sits with me.
I covered last year’s end-of-year media availability last year for Yahoo Sports and Keefe’s remarks are not altogether dissimilar from what he said last summer. In some respects, he’s once again awaiting his fate. There are circumstantial differences, however: Kyle Dubas effectively jumped on a proverbial grenade by admitting some vulnerability over his decision to consult with his family, before committing to the Maple Leafs for another year. Shanahan viewed Dubas’ honesty as a resolute sign of weakness and fired him, then hired Brad Treliving in the most bizarre press conference I’ve experienced in my 12 years in sports media, evoking Real Madrid emperor Florentino Perez.
Treliving isn’t going anywhere. Shanahan isn’t going to fire his hired gun after one disappointing season, albeit the most critical one to date in the Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner era. You could perhaps dictate caution after the 2021 collapse against the Montreal Canadiens or stand to reason that they lost to the best team of the era in 2022 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, or view last year’s advancement to the second round as a sign of progress — Keefe certainly does. There is nowhere to hide anymore for Keefe or for the Core Four, although in reality, you may as well fold your franchise if you’re entertaining the idea of trading a presumptive Hart Trophy finalist in Matthews, who authored the best goal-scoring campaign of the past 31 years. Keefe is not only the most reasonable candidate to be jettisoned, he’s deserved it.
Keefe’s proponents — few and far between, at least at the time of this filing — will point to his .665 winning percentage during the regular season. He’s a player-friendly coach and defended Marner against the wave of criticism he’s been subjected to after an underwhelming series that culminated in a blown defensive assignment versus David Pastrnak on the series-clinching goal. Keefe tried 104 forward line combinations during the regular season and yet he displayed an inability to adapt during the postseason. He was routinely outfoxed by Jon Cooper in the postseason, Paul Maurice effectively erased last change during the 2023 second-round series, Jim Montgomery made better adjustments this year and his motivational tactics are falling short.
It appears evident that Keefe knows that he may have already coached his final game with the Maple Leafs.
My job is to find solutions and help direct and create a path for our team to continue to move forward. And that’s my focus. I understand that ownership and management, you know, they make those types of decisions. And as I said, I accept responsibility for not meeting results. I believe in myself greatly. I love coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now more than ever, I believe in myself and our team and that I will win and our team will win. I’ve been through a lot, you know, as a coach, in my career and, you know, to get to this, to this level and, and, and I’ve won a lot, you know, before coming here and the path always looks different. But you’ll learn along the way. And I’ve learned a lot through my experience and, and I know I’m in a good place. That decision’s out of my control.
You know, my job is to continue to work, to find solutions and continue to improve as a coach. And then at the same time, you know, take accountability for the fact that we haven’t met expectations and decisions like, like you’re alluding to are out of my control. But I certainly would like the attention and focus to be on me as the head coach and leader. And you got to be accountable when you don’t meet expectations.
What does accountability look like if it doesn’t result in Keefe’s dismissal? We’re not trying to be bloodthirsty but this is a business after all and Keefe, like Mike Babcock before him, has routinely failed to accentuate the full potential of a hyper-talented roster during the postseason. Keefe developed a sterling reputation with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies as an excellent motivator of young players, drawing from his own experiences as a player. He’s only 43 years old and could be relatable to a younger team with a less ambitious profile. These aren’t the 2017 Maple Leafs, who put up an admirable fight against the Washington Capitals in six games. The cumulative effect of Keefe’s failures outweigh his regular season credentials.
Keefe, who led the OHL in scoring 24 years ago, badly wanted to win with the Maple Leafs. He was affable and was generally polite and gracious with his time with the media, although his defense of his team’s effort level following Game 7 entered the theatre of the absurd. We’ll know for sure by Thursday but it appears that we just witnessed Keefe’s closing act with the Maple Leafs.

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