Why Maple Leafs assistant coach Paul McFarland is returning to the OHL

Paul McFarland (Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

One step back, two steps forward.

That is the approach Paul McFarland took Friday, when it was announced he will be leaving the silent spotlight of Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach to reassume the head-coaching position with the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs, a post he already held in three winning seasons from 2014-15 to 2016-17.

Smart, young and driven, the 34-year-old McFarland makes clear his ultimate goal is to become an NHL head coach. Frankly, he wasn’t about to usurp Sheldon Keefe anytime soon.

“In any career, you’re constantly thinking about how to best go about your own development,” McFarland explained on a conference call Friday.

“My passion and ambition is to be a head coach, and I think the only way to be a head coach is to gain that experience. And the CHL for me is, if not the best, one of the best development leagues for all hockey.”

McFarland counts himself lucky to have picked the brains of five different coaches with NHL head-job experience during his two seasons with the Florida Panthers and one in Toronto, where he helped improve the Leafs’ power play from eighth overall (21.8 per cent) to sixth overall (23.1 per cent).

Those close to the situation say McFarland’s personality and way of thinking better suit him to running a bench than to assist on one.

“He’s wired to be a head coach. He really is,” one source said. “This is all self-interest and all Farley’s doing. He doesn’t want to be a career assistant coach.”

Added Keefe in a statement: “Normally this type of move would be done during the off-season, but given that these are far from normal circumstances, we are in full support of Paul’s desire to pursue this position in Kingston and gain more experience as a head coach.”

McFarland said he is grateful to Keefe and Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas for allowing him to sign a five-year pact with Kingston that will run through the 2024-25 junior season.

All parties agree that McFarland will remain with the Maple Leafs through the uncertain conclusion of the 2019-20 playoffs — even if that means missing the start of the Frontenacs’ 2020-21 campaign.

Kingston GM Darren Keily’s firing of coach Kurtis Foster on April 29 after a disappointing 19-39-2-2 effort and second straight losing season prompted McFarland’s interest, and the deal came together quickly.

“We greatly appreciate the support of Kyle Dubas and the entire Toronto Maple Leafs organization for their co-operation through this process,” Keily said. “Paul is a very key piece of our ultimate goal of winning a championship, especially in how he brings a passion and commitment that will no doubt be infectious to our players.”

The time and place feel right.

McFarland is taking over a promising young core in a familiar city where he’s already enjoyed multiple playoff series victories.

In Kingston, McFarland adopts 16-year-old superstar Shane Wright, who exploded for 39 goals and 66 points as an OHL rookie granted exceptional status. Surely, turning the cellar-dwelling Frontenacs into a Memorial Cup contender over the next half-decade would jolt McFarland’s stock among NHL executives.

“It’s going to give me another chance to take on that role and hopefully continue to grow and develop,” McFarland said. “Ultimately, the beauty of junior hockey is you’re going there not just to develop the players but the people as well. And I think I have a lot of passion for trying to help these kids grow.

“Being a younger guy with younger family, I felt like it was the right time for me to make this change.”

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