After the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-2 on Thursday, a lot of attention went to Auston Matthews. He scored his 40th goal in 49 games, and he is well on his way to winning the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for most goals in a season. But there was another significant achievement, Sheldon Keefe recorded his 100th game as head coach, and won his 61st game. He has now won more games through his first 100 games than any coach in the Maple Leafs’ century-old record book. Several quality coaches deserve the recognition of winning the Jack Adams Award, and Keefe should be one of them.
Let’s start with his most recent accomplishment of 61 wins through his first 100 games. This puts him ahead of guys who are in the Hall of Fame. Hap Day, who coached the team from 1940 to 1950, had 58 wins in his first 100 games. Pat Burns, who won the Jack Adams three times, was behind the bench the last time the Maple Leafs were in the conference finals. Burns earned 56 wins in his first 100 games with Toronto. Pat Quinn recorded 55 victories in his first 100 games, coaching the team from 1999 to 2006.
How Did Keefe Get to 61 Wins in 100 Games?
Of course, having players like Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares gives a coach a good chance at winning – or does it? Mike Babcock is the only coach to win the Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal, a World Cup, a World Championship, and a World Junior Championship. But he could not coach this team and was fired. Keefe came in turned it around immediately.
The 40-year-old, who is working his first NHL coaching job, laid the groundwork for this season when the last one ended. John Tavares recently told reporters about his year-end meeting with Keefe and how the coach challenged his captain to evolve his game. When training camp opened, there were several new players. Keefe had a unique mix of superstars, future Hall of Famers, relative unknowns and rebuilding projects. He didn’t have much time to figure out how to fit all the parts together. Keefe did come up with a combination that altered the franchise’s record book. On day one of camp, he announced Matthews and Marner would play together; the pair has become one of the best duos in the sport.
Keefe Coached Through Adversity and Injury
Like every team, the Maple Leafs have had a fair share of injuries. Toronto lost key players through the campaign. Some for longer stretches, but the biggest was losing goaltender Frederik Andersen at the midway point. The Leafs’ All-Star goalie had struggled all season, recording the worst numbers of his professional career. Keefe used Andersen’s injury as an opportunity to turn a career backup goalie, Jack Campbell, into a starter, posting some of the best numbers in the League.
When injuries forced roster changes, Keefe used the next-man-up mentality. He started that preparation early in the season. He refused to refer to the healthy scratch players as the taxi squad. He called them the stay-ready players and slot players seamlessly in and out of the lineup. Then there is Alex Galchenyuk’s dramatic turnaround. He skipped from team to team until the Leafs took a chance, rebuilt him, and put him on the second line.
Off the ice, Keefe may be the most interviewed guy in the League. He gets on a Zoom call nearly every day for about ten minutes to address media questions. Even on his days off, he is taking interviews from his home office. The Maple Leafs are the most talked about, and the most criticized team in the NHL and Keefe has to hear about it every day. However, he has led the team through a dominant regular season, sitting high above the division in the North. He has done it under the brightest of spotlights, the strongest of microscopes. His work has put him into a league with some of the LEagues best coaches from the past, now he deserves to mentioned with today’s top coaches.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.