The Toronto Maple Leafs have fired head coach Mike Babcock, the team announced on Wednesday.
Sheldon Keefe has taken Babcock’s place behind the bench.
“I have a tremendous amount of gratitude to Mike Babcock for coming here, laying the foundation for what we had wanted to accomplish,” Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan told reporters after the firing was announced. “He did a fantastic job and his work ethic everyday and his commitment was fantastic. I really appreciated him coming here. It was unfortunate to have the conversation we did today.
“It wasn’t an easy conversation to have and it wasn’t pleasant. Days like today are not. But it was what we felt was important for the club, and something once you realize that there’s something that you should do and have to do then it’s best to act on it.”
The news comes on the heels of a six-game losing streak for the Maple Leafs in a season filled with expectations. Toronto currently sits fifth in the Atlantic Division with a 9-10-4 record through 23 games.
“We haven’t played up to our expectations this year. I think that there are key elements to our game and attention to detail that has been missing often this year,” Shanahan said. “And so the players know that whenever a situation like this occurs it does have an impact on the players, but our game is not really meeting our expectations.”
“There’s a lot of work for Sheldon to do and there’s a lot of work for the players to do, and they understand that. But we really believe in them. We believe in the players that we have here. We believe in Sheldon, obviously. And so we’re still optimistic we’re going to get it back on track.”
The Maple Leafs have given up the second-most goals against in the NHL so far this season, have the 27th-ranked penalty kill and are 18th on the power play.
“We’re mistake-prone on defence, the attention to details aren’t there,” Shanahan said. “Even the explosive offence our team was known for has been missing for a while now.”
According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, the Leafs are retaining the services of Babcock’s assistant coaches under Keefe: Paul McFarland, Dave Hakstol and Andrew Brewer.
Babcock was hired by the Maple Leafs in May 2015, taking over a struggling team and helping usher in a new era for the rebuilding club. Under his guidance, the Maple Leafs went 173-133-45 in 351 regular season games over the course of parts of five seasons, as well as an 8-12 record in three consecutive post-season appearances.
“It really just came down to the last couple of weeks and it got to the point where (Kyle Dubas and I) spoke in the last 48 hours and I just felt that it was something that needed to be done and Kyle felt the same way,” Shanahan said of the decision to part ways with Babcock. “So seeing as I had been the one that hired Mike, I felt that it was very important for me to get on a plane this morning and fly here and face Mike and be with Kyle to tell him myself that we had made a decision together that we felt was in the best interest of the club.”
Keefe has been at the helm of Toronto’s AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, for the past four years and has been considered the NHL club’s head coach-in-waiting thanks to his success there.
“I think Sheldon’s earned it. I think if you look at Sheldon’s track record, the amount of players that play on the Toronto Maple Leafs that have played with Sheldon, for Sheldon, with the Marlies,” Shanahan said of the Leafs’ new bench boss. “The job he’s done in developing players for us that were some early draft picks, some very late-round draft picks. And then just his success – he’s had success basically everywhere he’s coached since he started coaching.”
The 39-year-old coached the Marlies to an overall record of 199-89-22-9 and four consecutive playoff berths, twice winning the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s top regular season team and capturing the team’s first-ever Calder Cup championship in 2018.