Keefe’s Job Rests on Maple Leafs’ Play-In Success

When the NHL returns, the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Columbus Blue Jackets in a play-in series. If the Maple Leafs lose that best-of-five, then Toronto needs to find a new head coach.

Let’s be clear, it’s unlikely that Sheldon Keefe gets canned if Kyle Dubas is still the general manager. That would be an entirely different discussion for another time. That said, Keefe is on the hot seat even with his buddy as the boss.

Sheldon Keefe
Sheldon Keefe is in the hot seat (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Remember the first half of March – before the coronavirus changed the world? If you’re like me, it may be hard to recall; if you’re Toronto, it’s something you want to forget. During the first week of March, the Maple Leafs were in California and, quite frankly, looked awful.

California Nightmare

There was a time when a trip to the Golden State for an Eastern Conference team was a nightmare. It meant you’d be playing three big, mean and talented teams in less than five to six days. Not this season. Again, let’s refresh your memory because it is hard to believe how lousy hockey is in California this season. The Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks are terrible. All three of these once powerhouse teams have missed the 24 team playoffs, finishing as the worst three teams in the Western Conference.

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The Leafs started the trip west in San Jose. Tied at 2 after the second period, Toronto gave up three goals in the third period. The Sharks outshot the Leafs 38-27. On the bright side, the two goals by the Leafs were beauties by Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and are worth another look.

Two days later, the Leafs were in Los Angeles. The Kings had been in rebuild mode for months, and the line-up was full of call ups. Yet Toronto could not muster one goal as the Kings won in a shootout. The next night wasn’t much better. Anaheim held the Maple Leafs off the board until late in the third period, as the Ducks won the game 2-1.

Three of the worst teams in the NHL and the Leafs got just one point. Thankfully for the players and coaches, there was still another game to go before the COVID-19 pause. Toronto came home and played one of its best games of the season, beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1.

Keefe is Trending Down

Okay, every club has its ups and downs, so to be fair, we should take a look at the other 42 games that Keefe was behind the bench.

When Keefe was named the 31st coach in franchise history on November 20, 2019, it was not in the most ideal circumstances. 23 games into the season, the head coaching job came open when Mike Babcock was fired. This termination should’ve happened during the offseason, as the Leafs were coming off another first-round playoff exit, and the link between Babcock and his young superstars seemed to be at the breaking point.

It took a dreadful start to the season and a six-game losing streak to finally show Babcock the door. Keefe rushed to join the team in Phoenix, where appropriately, the Maple Leafs started to rise from the ashes.

The next 20 games were off the charts for Toronto. A 15-4-1 record brought back hope and energy to Leafs Nation. But in light of what happened next, we need to ask if the sudden turnaround was because Keefe was there or because Babcock was gone?

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Some less than flattering stories about Babcock surfaced, including an awkward situation with Marner and Nazem Kadri. It was a rare insight into what is happening in the locker room, and it didn’t sound like a good place to be. But when Keefe was named head coach, the Maple Leafs looked like they were actually having fun again.

Problems Started in 2020

Then January 6, 2020, brought Keefe’s first noticeable misstep. He pulled Frederik Andersen just 1:45 into the second period against the Edmonton Oilers. Andersen does not show much emotion, but it was clear he was not happy. Andersen has been the workhorse for Toronto, rarely being pulled in his three seasons as a Maple Leaf. Getting the yank in front of his home fans was likely an embarrassing moment. After losing the game 6-4, Keefe explained his decision was based on the team’s effort, not Andersen, “I wasn’t going to let him play behind that, I didn’t think it was fair to him, so we needed to make a change. We had no issue with anything that he was doing in the net.”

A month later, he publicly shamed Kasperi Kapanen. Keefe scratched the speedy winger from a Hockey Night in Canada game against the provincial rival, Ottawa Senators. When Keefe was asked about putting Kapanen in the press box instead of on the ice he said, “internal accountability is really what it is, you guys can get a chance to talk to him, I think when we get together again on Monday.”

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That answer allowed for the Toronto media to openly speculate for two days. The 23-year-old was put in front of reporters to explain he had overslept and was late for practice. For three minutes, he was grilled about the situation; at one point, he stopped and said, “Listen, guys, if you want to talk hockey, I’m all for it, talk about today or the future, but I overslept, that’s that.”

Sheldon Keefe; John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks to captain John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

That is quite a punishment for being late to practice. The message was sent to the rest of the room, the problem is, this is not the OHL or the AHL. This is a group of grown men who already dealt with Babcock’s coaching tactics.

The record clearly indicates the honeymoon is over. During the last 24 games, which also included a loss to emergency backup goalie David Ayres, the Leafs were just a little better than average with 12-11-1 record. Average is not good enough in this league, and indeed not good enough for this roster. If Toronto brings an average effort to the play-in series, it will be over quick – and so should Keefe’s tenure.