Everyone knows the talent on this Maple Leafs team but head coach Sheldon Keefe deserves a ton of credit for getting it to work together.
Let’s play a little game of “what-if”. What if the Toronto Maple Leafs had struggled for long stretches of this NHL regular season? Specifically, what if the Leafs failed to qualify for the playoffs? Even more specifically, what if Toronto’s coaching staff under head coach Sheldon Keefe was unable to guide the team to the post-season?
I’ll tell you what: criticism of Keefe would’ve been heavy and constant, and in all likelihood, Keefe’s time running the Buds would’ve ended the moment the regular season concluded. Keefe would’ve paid the price for not being able to guide Toronto’s deep, talented group to the playoffs, and few would’ve spoken up in his defense.
Given that certainty, isn’t it fair Keefe gets credit for the Leafs’ record-setting performance? In Toronto’s long and storied history, no Buds team has been better than the Leafs’ 51-21-6 record and their 108 standings points. If we were going to tear into Keefe in the wake of an awful season, it’s only reasonable that we give him credit for Toronto winning nearly seven of every 10 games. Only two teams in the league this year – the high-octane Colorado Avalanche, and the deep, fast Florida Panthers – have had a better season than the Leafs. That’s not a fluke.
Indeed, if you followed Keefe’s career trajectory behind the bench, you’ll quickly see that he earned the trust of Leafs GM Kyle Dubas well before he was named as Mike Babcock’s replacement in November of 2019. Keefe and Dubas were the coach-GM team for the American League’s Toronto Marlies when the Marlies won an AHL championship in 2018. It was Keefe’s third year as Marlies head coach, and though his primary job in that role was to groom young players for an NHL job, Keefe showed he could lead a team to success as well.
Now, some would suggest Keefe’s performance as Leafs’ coach has been made easier by the presence of Hart Trophy frontrunner Auston Matthews, and fellow star/linemate Mitch Marner. That’s true, but only to a degree. Matthews and Marner’s skills aren’t in doubt, but both of their games have grown under Keefe’s stewardship, particularly on the defensive end. The same is true for winger William Nylander, forward Pierre Engvall, and many other Leafs youngsters. Keefe has shown patience under pressure with the team’s young core, and that has to count for something.
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For years in Toronto, major league baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays thrived with a stacked lineup. Their manager at the time, Cito Gaston, never received his due for balancing out egos, keeping his team focused, and ultimately, steering it to post-season glory. Keefe doesn’t have the success at the NHL post-season level just yet, but it’s important to note improvement isn’t always linear, and Keefe’s history with the Marlies underscores that fact: in his first year with the Marlies, Keefe pushed them to the third round of the playoffs; the season after that, the Marlies only made it to the second round. It wasn’t until the third year that Keefe’s Marlies team won it all.
We all know the Leafs are going to be judged by their showing in the coming playoffs. But any criticism of Keefe has to include proper context. He has infused his players with confidence. He has overcome stretches of sub-par goaltending. He has earned home-ice advantage in the opening round of the post-season. And he’s still only 41 years old. Just as it’s true Marner and Matthews’ best years are still ahead, so too is it true Keefe’s prime years as a coach are in front of him.
So, let’s give Keefe some credit for what he’s done this year. The Leafs have never been better in the regular season, and that’s no small feat.
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