New Jersey Devils hire Sheldon Keefe as head coach

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe watches against the Detroit Red Wings in the third period of an NHL preseason hockey game Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP Photo)

It didn’t take long for Sheldon Keefe to find a new job.

The New Jersey Devils hired Keefe as head coach, Sportsnet confirmed on Wednesday. The Spittin’ Chiclets podcast was the first to report the news.

Keefe was fired as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs on May 9, less than a week after the club lost Game 7 of the first round in overtime against the Boston Bruins. He had two years left on his contract.

“This is an exciting time, and I’m honoured to be a member of the Devils’ organization,” Keefe said in a team release confirming the news on Thursday. “To have the chance to lead this young, dynamic team and to see the potential that can still be unlocked is all very attractive for me. After meeting with David, Josh, Tom, and other members of the organization and in talking with my family, this was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. I know this organization has a great history of winning and I look forward to getting started to work on leading them back to that level.”

The Devils, meanwhile, fired their head coach Lindy Ruff on March 4 and moved assistant Travis Green into the interim head coach position. At the close of the season, Green accepted the head coaching gig in Ottawa, making room for Keefe to take over as the Devils’ new bench boss.

Under Keefe, the Leafs achieved great regular-season success, but never made a long playoff run.

The club won just one of six playoff series under his watch with the Leafs qualifying for post-season play in all five of his years behind the bench.

Keefe, 43, will now be tasked with trying to get New Jersey back into the postseason. The Devils, with the sixth-worst save percentage in the league, could not outscore their problems to make it this year after reaching the second round in 2023.

The Devils posted a 38-39-5 record this past season, a 31-point drop from the previous season. They had several injuries with the biggest being a torn pectoral muscle that limited defenceman Dougie Hamilton to 20 games. Defenceman Jonas Siegenthaler also missed time with a broken foot and a concussion. Star forward Jack Hughes missed 20 games, while centre and captain Nico Hischier was out for 11.

Goaltending was the team’s major problem last year as Vitek Vanecek, Nico Daws and Akira Schmid were inconsistent. New Jersey got help late when it acquired Jake Allen at the trade deadline but the netminding remains an issue heading into next season.

General manager Tom Fitzgerald’s team has youth and speed. Forward Jesper Bratt (27 goals, 56 assists), Timo Meier (28-24), Hischier (27-40) and Hughes (27-47) are outstanding up front, while defenseman Luke Hughes had a franchise record 47 points (9-38) in his rookie season.

Ruff had led the Devils to a franchise-record 112 points in 2022-23, a 49-point improvement from the previous year. They finished second in the Metropolitan Division riding a career-best season by Jack Hughes. New Jersey rallied to beat the Rangers in seven games in the opening round and lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in five in the second round.

Former GM Maple Leafs Kyle Dubas promoted Keefe from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies to replace Mike Babcock early in the 2019-20 season. In 2017-18, Keefe guided the Marlies to the Calder Cup.

The native of Brampton, Ont., was widely praised for getting the Leafs back into this year’s first-round series against the Bruins after falling behind 3-1 and dealing with several key injuries, but the team’s string of playoff losses made his departure seem inevitable.

Dubas gave Keefe his big break in coaching, hiring him to coach the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds in 2012 after he won a national junior-A championship with the Pembroke Lumber Kings.

A high-scoring junior player, Keefe ended up playing 125 career NHL games with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

— With files from the Associated Press

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.