Maple Leafs’ Extension of Keefe Was the Right Call

On Sept. 30, the Toronto Maple Leafs extended head coach Sheldon Keefe’s contract by two years. On Oct. 1, Amazon released the “All or Nothing” documentary that captured the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Maple Leafs’ 2020-21 season. While watching the documentary opened up the wound of losing in yet another Game 7, the one takeaway I think every Leafs fan can agree on is that Keefe is about as passionate a head coach as you can get.

Sheldon Keefe; John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks to captain John Tavares.

The timing was almost perfect in that regard. Extend your head coach, release a five-episode series that he was, arguably, the star of. From looking forward Jimmy Vesey in the eyes and telling him his play was “very vanilla”, to dropping an F-bomb just about every other word, to his “now is the time” speech ahead of overtime in Game 6, the documentary really shed a light on just how much he truly wants to get the best out of his players.

The speech obviously didn’t work. We know that. But regardless of what we saw in the documentary, Keefe was deserving of that extension one way or another. It’s easy to look back and say “well, all he has to show for playoff success is two first-round exits”. But let’s take a little peek at the big picture before we resort to that.

Keefe Has a Winning Pedigree at Multiple Levels

Ask anybody from Pembroke, Ontario, about Keefe, and I guarantee you’ll hear nothing but positive things. He purchased a struggling Pembroke Lumber Kings Jr A franchise in 2003, and began to assume a full-time role with the team after a knee injury ended his NHL playing career early in 2004-05. He took over as the team’s head coach in 2006-07, and proceeded to lead them to five straight championships.

Keefe took over as head coach of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL)’s Sault St. Marie Greyhounds in 2012-13 after being hired by then-Soo Greyhounds general manager Kyle Dubas. He coached them to three winning seasons, including their greatest season in franchise history when they finished with a record of 54-12-2. They swept the first and second round before falling to Connor McDavid’s Erie Otters the Western Conference Final.

Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe
Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe, second left, celebrates with his coaching and training staff.

In 2015-16, Dubas, who was the GM of the American Hockey League (AHL)’s Toronto Marlies at the time, hired Keefe as his head coach. Again, Keefe coached his new team to four straight winning seasons, including a Calder Cup win in 2017-18. A team that featured the likes of many players who would go on to play with the Maple Leafs such as Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Travis Dermott, and Justin Holl.

And since becoming head coach of the Maple Leafs, he has a record of 62-29-12 at the NHL level. While, yes, the playoff success hasn’t come, there are so many different variables that go into a winning playoff team, and while Keefe hasn’t been perfect, he comes from a winning background and he has the right mindset to get it done.

Keefe’s Success Will Come With Experience

Another important thing to consider is that every good coach has to start somewhere. Multiple successful coaches including Joel Quenneville, Jon Cooper, and Barry Trotz were, at one point, in the exact same position Keefe is in.

Look, we all know that he isn’t perfect. And there were certainly some questionable decisions made in this past year’s playoffs. I think he relied on Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner way too much, especially the latter. Here’s a guy who can barely get out of his own head, and yet his coach expects him to lead an entire team out of a 17-year curse with all the momentum against them? Not likely.

But on the other hand, let’s think back to the 2018-19 playoffs when Mike Babcock insisted on playing Patrick Marleau, his grizzled veteran, in crucial Game 7 moments while his stars sat on the bench. That was just as, if not more infuriating than watching Keefe try to force a spark out of Marner. From a fan’s perspective, anyways.

To really succeed when the stakes are the highest, you have to find that balance between trusting your stars to get it done and recognizing when they don’t have it. And for a coach who has just over 100 NHL games under his belt, to pretend like he doesn’t have the ability to learn from the past and grow is silly. If the Maple Leafs don’t let him do it here, another team will hire him and he’ll learn to do it somewhere else.

Keefe Can Only Do So Much Behind the Bench

Of all the narratives that have been beaten to death over the summer, the one that I will never stop pushing is that in the end, the sole reason to blame last year’s playoff demise on is the lack of production from the star players. The Maple Leafs had two of the NHL’s top five scorers in 2020-21. We saw firsthand how Matthews and Marner were able to single handedly take control of a game and put the team on their back when they had to. They did it multiple times last season.

If those two players step up and do that in any one of Game 5, Game 6, or Game 7, the Maple Leafs break the curse and I’m not sitting here writing this article. But they didn’t, so here we are. I know it’s frustrating when you look at the fact that the Leafs have made the playoffs five years in a row now and have nothing to show for it. And obviously, you’re not channeling that anger towards guys from the 2016-17 team. You’re channeling it towards the team they have now.

Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews,
Maple Leafs stars Matthews and Marner need to step up (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

But Keefe has not had a single 82-game season to himself. He took over nearly two months into the 2019-20 season before action was postponed due to COVID-19, coached one five-game series in the bubble in 2020, and then coached an unconventional 2020-21 season with no proper preseason, no fans, and a jam-packed 56-game schedule.

Say what you will, but Keefe falls pretty low on my list of people to blame for the most recent playoff collapse. Given the regular-season success he’s already had at the NHL level and the winning pedigree he’s boasted, I want to see what he’s capable of doing over the course of a full 82-games before I make any knee jerk decisions. We know that he’s got a winning mindset, and now we’ll have to wait and see if the players can develop one of their own.

Two-Year Extension Means Keefe Isn’t Off the Hook

If you made it through this whole article and you had a differing opinion from mine, it probably sounded like I think Keefe is perfect and there’s nothing he has to improve on. That’s not true. According to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, the fact that the extension was only two years means that there is that buffer period in case the Maple Leafs do meet the same fate again.

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If it was a five or six-year extension, maybe we’re questioning if he’s really worth that much of a committment. But for two years, I think it’s a no-brainer to bring him back. Because the reality is, Keefe has demonstrated that he has the mindset and the drive to bring a Stanley Cup back to Toronto. The documentary showed that. And considering the pedigree he has, it makes perfect sense to trust that he is the guy who can get this team fired up when it matters most. And now, it all depends on how the players respond to their team’s faith in their coach.

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