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Questions Ahead of 2023-24 Season: Is Sheldon Keefe the right coach for the Maple Leafs?

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Photo credit:© Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
7 months ago
The 2023-24 season is right around the corner, especially now that the start of preseason is fast approaching.
With the calendar flipped over to September and most offseason transactions sorted out, teams can now focus squarely on accumulating the new faces with their teammates and finalizing preparations for a new campaign. But regardless of where each franchise stands, there will always be questions that emerge at the start of the year.
The Leafs are no different, especially in the wake of a pivotal offseason that saw a new GM take over and significant roster turnover. But one area that many expected to see sweeping changes, but ultimately saw only minor adjustments was behind the bench. There may have been some turnover in Spencer Carbery becoming the Washington Capitals’ head coach while Guy Boucher and Mike Van Ryn were added as assistants, but there weren’t any major alterations to the coaching staff. Perhaps none more polarizing than the retaining of Sheldon Keefe not only for the upcoming season but also getting rewarded with a multi-year extension.
You can’t deny that the Leafs have been a successful team in terms of the regular season since he arrived in 2019. Among active coaches, only Jay Woodcroft and Jim Montgomery have a better point percentage with their current team than Keefe. Every season with him at the helm has seen the Leafs make the playoffs and get his group on the doorstep of advancing. But with only one playoff series win to show for his efforts over his first four years in Toronto, the playoffs have remained a thorn in his side where he is routinely outcoached by the opposing team.
So heading into the 2023-24 season, the question remains: Is Keefe the right person to continue coaching the Leafs?
I asked a question similar to this one a few years ago when the Leafs were months removed from a disastrous playoff appearance where they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Canadiens. After doing an extensive breakdown of what he brought to the table, I concluded that there was enough evidence to suggest the franchise was making the right decision in keeping Keefe behind the bench.
He has since coached two full seasons in Toronto that included the best regular season finish in franchise history, two more playoff berths, and one series win. In the three series that the Leafs did participate in during that span, Keefe was soundly outcoached in all of them and was thus fairly lucky to get past Tampa Bay this past spring.
It’s not just the overall lack of playoff success that has some fans frustrated with Keefe’s tenure with the Leafs. There are instances like this past season when he publicly called out his star players for a lack of effort following a loss to the Coyotes, only to then walk back those comments just a few days later. Then there is his insistence on leaning heavily on clearly overmatched players such as Jake Muzzin in 2022 and Justin Holl last season. And of course, the countless times the Leafs execute a drop pass while on the power play, that continues to drive some fans crazy.
There is no denying that the regular season success has been great (a far cry from years past when it would have been nice for Toronto to even make the playoffs), but the success has not followed into the playoffs where the Leafs have yet to go on a significant run with Keefe at the helm. While it may seem like a crazy move to let go of one of the winningest coaches the team’s ever had, the reality is he has yet to show he is capable of coaching his team deep into spring at the NHL level. So, therefore, it would have been understandable if Treliving decided not to retain Keefe and instead look for his guy to take the helm.
But here is the thing: all of the work that Keefe has done with the Leafs was under a different GM.
Throughout much of his coaching career, he has worked in tandem with Kyle Dubas above him, dating back to their time with the Soo Greyhounds. The two men have not only forged a strong working relationship because of their shared philosophy of running a successful hockey team (that has included the 2018 Calder Cup) but have remained good friends for over a decade. There is very rarely a time when both of them are not working together, so it is hard to get a proper read on how both will operate independently.
That is, until now.
Treliving is barely three months into the job and the new faces surrounding the Leafs’ star players look vastly different than how they looked when they were ousted in Game 5 against the Panthers. They have stirred away from players like Michael Bunting, Noel Acciari, and Luke Schenn; then replaced them with the likes of Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, and John Klingberg. While the nucleus of the team remains intact, the supporting cast has seen quite a significant turnover.
Questions of whether Keefe can coach his team to a long playoff run are not going away anytime soon, but the sense of curiosity about how he will do without his security blankets is one that I am sure many Leafs fans would be interested to see what happens. With Holl and Alex Kerfoot out of the picture, some room has opened up for different options for Keefe to utilize in the roles left open by the aforementioned departures. And we know he is more than willing to try different things because of his frequent line-shuffling.
Of course, this does not mean Keefe’s job is safe because there remains the possibility he will not finish out his new extension. All that has occurred is a jolt in the arm that has granted him another opportunity to prove he deserves to remain at the helm indefinitely. If things go awry or the Leafs are yet again dispatched from the playoffs early, it would not be surprising if Treliving decides to make a coaching change and promote someone like Boucher or John Gruden into the role since they were his picks.
At the very least, Keefe has at least earned the chance to get a bit more runway with a different-looking team. The Leafs should once again be in the mix for the playoffs barring any unforeseen circumstances, but it will not matter if he once again gets outcoached in a series that they fall short in. It may seem unfair to some to have that much pressure on one of the franchise’s most successful coaches, but that is the reality of a team on the eve of another critical season of this era.
Keefe is the right man to coach the Leafs for the time being, but his seat is certainly not cold.

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