Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
The Leafs would be making a mistake if they fire Sheldon Keefe
1 month ago
It’s once again that time of year to have a conversation about Sheldon Keefe.
Right now, the Leafs are in the midst of a rough stretch of games where they have been consistently inconsistent. Tuesday night’s loss to the Oilers was their third straight in regulation where they blew a third-period lead and fourth straight defeat overall. They only have four regulation wins over their last 14 games dating back to December 19th. Worst of all, their lead over the Red Wings and Lightning has fallen as they failed to take advantage of the games in hand.
This has been a frustrating few weeks of Leafs hockey and the fans have every right to feel frustrated about the current state of affairs. It’s therefore understandable why many are calling for changes to get things back on track, but I believe they asking for the wrong kind of change.
Let’s not sugarcoat things: Keefe has not been masterful from a tactical perspective over the past 14 games. Choosing to go with Martin Jones on consecutive nights during the California trip was a risky move, using Conor Timmins with Simon Benoit against Detroit was a recipe for disaster, Nick Robertson’s infrequent usage despite his offensive output has been odd, and continuing to trout out struggling players like Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie has been a head-scratcher.
No coach is going to be flawless and they will always have stretches where they make lineup decisions that get on the fan’s nerves. But is this grounds to fire Keefe and bring in someone else? I don’t think so, and it would be a shortsighted knee-jerk reaction if they decide to relieve him of his duties.
Some will say that Keefe merely benefited from the Leafs having four of the best players in the NHL right now and that the same results would occur if someone else was in charge. But he did not stumble his way into becoming the fifth-winningest coach in franchise history by accident. There is no doubt that he has had his frustrating moments in the past but it is hard to argue against a man willing to trout out different line combinations, knows how to get a lot out of his guys, and won’t be afraid to call out the players if he feels they weren’t delivering (until he has to walk it back).
Keefe is also working with a vastly different supporting cast compared to years past and the Leafs’ defensive issues are not solely on him. It’s not the coach’s fault that players such as John Klingberg and Max Domi have made the team weaker defensively or that Brodie and Giordano have seen major regression in their play this season. He is merely trying his best to get the most out of what he has even if that seems to be in vain at the moment.
By no means is Keefe completely blameless in regards to the Leafs being mediocre so far this season because there have been moments where he was tactically a step behind. Tuesday’s game was a prime example as he continued to trout out his fourth line to defend the Connor McDavid line despite visual evidence that the trio was overmatched and chasing the play defensively. It certainly doesn’t help that Toronto wasn’t granted the last change on account of being the road team and trying to get the ideal line matchup is not easy, but things like that are areas the bench boss could certainly improve on.
His seat is far from ice-cold, but it is certainly not red-hot either. Teams go through rough stretches all the time and the Leafs are experiencing theirs right now. This is not to suggest that they should accept complacency when things have not gone their way because the status quo is not going to cut it. But firing Keefe when the Leafs are amid a funk that many teams have to go through in a season would be a mistake that would have long-term ramifications.
Because let’s say Toronto does go through with the move: who out there is a worthy enough successor that aligns with what they are trying to achieve with the current crop of players?
Many will be quick to point out Craig Berube who is five years removed from a Stanley Cup, but he has his warts such as holding back Vince Dunn. Gerrard Gallant can get his teams on long playoff runs but his shelf-life is short and the falloff can be just as drastic. Joel Quenneville may have won multiple Cups but hiring him would be a PR nightmare given the role he played in covering up the despicable acts committed by Brad Aldrich. If they decide to go with the internal replacement, Guy Boucher has experience manning the bench but his previous track record shows a pattern and he can only man the bench for so long as I mentioned earlier with Gallant.
I understand that there are some benefits to bringing a different voice behind the bench as it is possible for the Leafs to get a mid-season coaching bump. Look no further than their previous opponent the Oilers, who have done a complete 180 on their fortunes after replacing Jay Woodcroft with Kris Knoblauch, cultivated with their ongoing franchise-best 11-game win streak. But that bump is far from a sure thing as evidenced by the Senators, Wild, and Blues not seeing much improvements after firing their bench boss during the season.
Changing the coach is the easiest thing for a team to do when they are struggling, but wasting that bullet to bring in an inferior or unfit replacement just for the sake of it would be a bad lapse of judgment. So if changes aren’t going to come behind the bench, what should they do instead?
We know Brad Treliving is still on the hunt to shore up the blueline and adding a top-four defenceman will solve a lot of their problems, similar to how drastically the Leafs changed back when they acquired Jake Muzzin. Combine that with a defensively sound forward like Alexey Toropchenko and it would go a long way in bringing more balance to the lineup. They could also try different combinations on special teams given that the power play is mired in a drought and the penalty kill is floundering. And while Mitch Marner caught a lot of flack for his quote after Tuesday’s game, he is right in saying the problem at the moment is failing to execute on their chances to extend the lead because it has allowed the opposition to not be fully out of it. After all, this is the same team that nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback from down 5-0. So long as they have these four players leading the charge, they will always have a chance to win games when they are executing on opportunities.
Keefe has been far from perfect throughout his tenure as the Leafs and I have had my gripes with him in the past (I will never forgive him for getting out-coached by Dominique Ducharme in 2021). He still has to prove himself in the playoffs because winning only one round over the past five seasons in charge is not good enough, even if he has been successful in the regular season. Yet despite all of his annoying habits and shortcomings, I think it would be a mistake to fire him right now and doing so for the sake of it would have long-term detrimental effects.
It may have been an odd choice for Treliving to extend Keefe after being appointed the GM position, but I don’t think he opted to blindly keep the coaching staff mostly intact just because. Back when the extension was announced, Treliving was quick to point out that not only did he view Keefe as a top coach, but that the players have a great deal of respect for the bench boss because they trust him. I know for some that could be viewed as taking the easy way out, but you have to remember that this extension came late in the summer and not mere days after Treliving joined the organization.
That tells me the GM has faith in his coach and probably does not have any desire to go in a different direction unless things get dire. Even if Treliving wanted to, MLSE probably would not be too keen on having to pay another coach to not be part of the organization after they just finished sending Babcock payments a little over six months ago.
So for better or worse, Keefe is not going away anytime soon even despite their recent struggles. He has his warts and frustrating tendencies, but he has done nothing that would be grounds for dismissal. If the Leafs are converting on their chances just like they were at the start of 2024, we would not be having this conversation right now.
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