Will Sheldon Keefe Become the Maple Leafs’ Next Head Coach?

This week, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Sheldon Keefe to a two-year contract extension to remain the head coach of the AHL Toronto Marlies. For now, that’s exactly where Keefe wants to be. However, that satisfaction likely won’t last many more years.

Given Keefe’s tenure within the organization and his tight relationship with Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, logic suggests that Keefe is the heir apparent to current Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.

Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock
Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Although Babcock’s eight-year, $50 million contract (at $6.25 million per year) doesn’t expire until the end of the 2022-23 season, Dubas’ pause in announcing Babcock’s return next season suggests that Babcock’s decision is year-to-year. If that’s true, I believe Keefe could be the Maple Leafs coach as early as 2020-21.

Keefe Wasn’t Interested in Being an Assistant Coach

Last week, an assistant coaching job came available with the Maple Leafs; however, Keefe chose not to consider the job. He had decided to remain the Marlies’ bench boss and announced he would not accept a promotion to the next level anywhere (even with the Maple Leafs). For him, it was the right move for his young family. Keefe, who’s from Brampton, Ontario, has extended family in the Toronto area that he believes offers needed support to his wife and children during long hockey seasons.

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Keefe noted this week that, “I don’t know what the future holds for me … I see myself as a head coach for the time being. If down the line I feel that I need to be an assistant to gain some experience, I’ll entertain that.”​

Keefe’s Relationship with Dubas

Dubas and Keefe go back a long way. In fact, they’ve grown together through the system. When Dubas was general manager of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he hired Keefe to coach the team (2012-15). When he became general manager for the Marlies in 2015, he quickly hired Keefe to coach the Marlies. And, that partnership has continued.

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs
Kyle Dubas hired Keefe as the Marlies’ head coach. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Dubas and Keefe go back a long way. In fact, they’ve grown together through the system. When Dubas was general manager of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he hired Keefe to coach the team (2012-15). When he became general manager for the Marlies in 2015, he quickly hired Keefe to coach the Marlies. And, that partnership has continued.

There’s no reason to believe this relationship isn’t a pattern, which means Keefe will one day become the Maple Leafs head coach – as long as Dubas is in the picture.

Keefe is Dubas’ man. Where Dubas goes, Keefe follows.

And that makes sense: Keefe is a good coach. He won both the OHL and CHL Coach of the Year in 2014-15 for leading the Greyhounds to a franchise-best 54-win season. Last season he led the Marlies to their first Calder Cup championship. This season, although Keefe lost key players to the Maple Leafs, the Marlies kept winning.

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The team’s playoff run this season was unexpected and, in part, a tribute to Keefe’s coaching. Their loss in the Eastern Conference Final to the Charlotte Checkers was no embarrassment. The Checkers were by far the best team in the league.

What People Say About Keefe

Laurence Gilman, now general manager of the Marlies, believes Keefe is one of the best coaches in the AHL and that he has a great hockey mind. He’s especially good at developing the organization’s young prospects and preparing them to move into NHL competition. Gilman admits about Keefe, “I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of opportunity in his future.”

Keefe’s importance to the Maple Leafs is growing because he’s coached the Marlies young players for several years, including several players currently on the Maple Leafs roster.

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Sheldon Keefe comments on his two-year extension.

His players suggest that Keefe instills confidence and trust. For example, during the on-ice celebration following the Marlies’ Game 7 Calder Cup victory last season, Keefe pulled rookie Jeremy Bracco aside to talk. Bracco had, at the end of the Marlies’ 2017-18 regular season, been on a scoring streak (14 points in 11 games), but when Andreas Johnsson returned from the Maple Leafs to the Marlies he had become a healthy playoff scratch.

Although Johnsson won the Calder Cup Playoff MVP award, Keefe’s message was for Bracco. He told the young player that “this is gonna be your team next year.” Keefe was good to his word. He gave Bracco top line minutes throughout the season, and Bracco scored 79 points in 75 games to finish second in league scoring.

Bracco responded that “Keefer stayed true to his word … You want to play for a coach that trusts you and you trust the coach. He stuck to his word and ever since he gave me a chance.”

Jeremy Bracco, 2018-19 Marlies’ leading scorer. (Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Marlies forward Chris Mueller sums Keefe’s coaching up in these words: “With Sheldon, his teams are just getting stronger…his players want to play for him and want to follow him because they believe in his system.”

Next Season for the Marlies and Maple Leafs

Next season, Keefe will coach the Marlies. Next season, Babcock will coach season five of his eight-year contract. Perhaps Keefe will step in soon after; perhaps not. Whatever happens, the organization is building consistency and loyalty among its coaches.

One day, probably soon, an NHL team will make Keefe an offer he won’t be able to pass up. The Maple Leafs have noted that, if that offer came from another NHL team, they would not stand in Keefe’s way.

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However, given his experience, status, and success within the Maple Leafs’ organization, I’m thinking that it won’t be long before the big team is knocking at his door.

Keefe is likely to become the 40th Maple Leafs head coach.