Sheldon Keefe overdue fall guy for Maple Leafs’ failures

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman joins the JD Bunkis Podcast to discuss why the Maple Leafs can't afford to be patient with naming their next head coach, if they already have a preferred candidate, and also weighs in on a couple other rumoured names.

“Every day feels like playoffs when you’re in this position, quite honestly.” — Sheldon Keefe, before coaching his final series for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

TORONTO — He was always going to be the fall guy.

The two-year contract the Toronto Maple Leafs granted to Sheldon Keefe late in the summer of 2023 meant nothing more than chucking wads of cash at a potential distraction to the hockey team and ensuring another layer of protection between the suits up high and the grinders down at ice level.

To Keefe and his family, however, the pay raise for an extension he won’t be around to start means a soft landing from one heckuva rocky ride.

For after losing his fifth post-season series in six attempts — plus a few excruciating, corporate-mandated extra days to twist in the wind — Keefe was fired.

His contract did not include a no-removal clause.

And everyone, including the scapegoat himself, saw this day speeding toward the Maple Leafs bench like a blown lead down Causeway Street.

“I’m in the coaching business. And in the coaching business, you don’t get to make decisions about your position. So, for me, it’s out of my control,” an emotional Keefe said Monday, when he showed great character by choosing to address the public while his fate hung in the balance. “I understand that ownership and management, they make those types of decisions. And as I said, I accept responsibility for not meeting results.

“I believe in myself greatly. I love coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now more than ever, I believe in myself and our team and that I will win — and our team will win.”

[brightcove videoID=6352605853112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Then, much like his handsomely paid predecessor, Sheldon Keefe took the opportunity to bet on Sheldon Keefe. One didn’t have to listen too hard to hear a man applying for his next NHL job.

“I’ve been through a lot as a coach in my career and to get to this level. I’ve won a lot before coming here, and the path always looks different. But you’ll learn along the way. And I’ve learned a lot through my experience, and I know I’m in a good place,” Keefe went on.

“My job is to continue to work, to find solutions and continue to improve as a coach. And then, at the same time, take accountability for the fact that we haven’t met expectations.”

Keefe read the room and his own situation.

Keefe expressed accountability on a day so many of his charges either lacked the wherewithal or guts to do so.

Remarkably, the coach even fell on the sword for an elite player whose three-point performance in the Boston Bruins series is being viewed as soft and purposeless by fed-up fans.

“There’s things that Mitch Marner does that don’t show up on the score sheet that are really important to our team. Obviously, our entire team needs to score more and to come through at key times,” Keefe said.

“But my job as a coach is to help our entire team, including Mitch, to come through in those moments. And I failed to do so. And I’ll take responsibility for that.”

Out of sensitivity to his players or the market or his own bosses, Keefe never declared, “Mitch has gotta step up,” the way Jim Montgomery said, “Pasta’s got to step up.” Even if deep down part of him wished to.

And so, Keefe bows out with respect in the handshake.

Stress bomb defused.

He’ll be a better coach, no doubt, for having run this gauntlet, and it says here that the Pittsburgh Penguins have an opening on their bench.

In-demand free agent Craig Berube, a perceived front-runner keen to take the Blue and White baton, didn’t win his Stanley Cup until getting fired. Same goes with Bruce Cassidy. And Barry Trotz. And…

It was time.

[brightcove videoID=6352606050112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

The only NHL coaches who had more tenure than Keefe have won a Cup or two (Jon Cooper, Mike Sullivan, Jared Bednar) or have a winning playoff record and reached multiple conference finals (Rod Brind’Amour).

Truthfully, it was probably time last summer, when Keefe’s bunch couldn’t reign in the joy of dispelling the Ghost of Round 1 to focus on the task at hand.

Or in the summer of 2022, when Cassidy and Trotz and Peter DeBoer were all UFAs and then-Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, ever loyal, asserted that Keefe’s name will one day be mentioned in the same breath as those bench bosses.

Or in the summer of 2021, when Toronto had the Canadian Division in a stranglehold and Keefe got outcoached in a loss to the rival Montreal Canadiens.

But changing on the fly has never been a strength of the Maple Leafs under president Brendan Shanahan, who has yet to cut to the core of the issue.

Heck, even Keefe’s pink slip was not accompanied by one for assistant Guy Boucher, who oversaw a talent-rich power play that went 1-for-21 against Boston.

Decisions regarding the remainder of the coaching staff will follow the head coach search, announced Brad Treliving. The GM went out of his way to save this bullet until he had no choice but to use it.

“Today’s decision was difficult. Sheldon is an excellent coach and a great man; however, we determined a new voice is needed to help the team push through to reach our ultimate goal,” Treliving said in a statement.

“We thank Sheldon for his hard work and dedication to the organization over the last nine years and wish him and his family all the very best.”

Treliving will join Shanahan and rookie MLSE CEO Keith Pelley at the dais Friday morning, when we expect Pelley to grant Shanahan an extended stay through the losing — not unlike the one Treliving gave Keefe last summer.

[brightcove videoID=6352606098112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Treliving is, by nature, a patient and thorough man, and MLSE has a boardroom of suits with opinions. The GM wanted this decision discussed and rubber-stamped.

The Leafs also avoided breaking the bad news on Tuesday, when the NHL preferred all off-ice focus on its Draft Lottery and, more importantly, Keefe was being inducted into his hometown Brampton Sports Hall of Fame as a player.

Much like the rest of the principles of this Maple Leafs era, Keefe’s legacy will be marked by undeniable regular-season success (212-97-40, five straight playoff appearances) and infuriating results when it matters most (a 16-21 playoff record and 1-5 series record).

In 2021-22, Keefe’s bunch set franchise records for most wins (54) and points (115) during a single season. The following spring, they beat the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning in a playoff series and guzzled the most delicious Blue Lights of their lives.

Keefe’s résumé, which includes a 2018 Calder Cup, will be strong enough to earn interviews elsewhere.

Speak to the Leafs players, and they’ll bring up his attention to detail, intense pre-scouts of the opposition and emphasis on the positive. Veteran Ryan Reaves was blown away by how aggressive a training camp Keefe ran, and Reaves has endured his share.

What no Maple Leafs player said, however, was something along the lines of: I want to run through a wall for that guy.

Asked about Keefe on Monday’s cleanout day, players offered platitudes along the lines of “good coach” or “done a really good job.” Yet no Maple Leafs player said: It’s on us, not the coach.

Keefe’s coaching decisions were often questioned.

His passion for winning, however, never should be.

Twice he got fined for blowing up at officials, going to bat for his players. He wore his stress, bit his lip, shared as much insight as he could with a demanding pool of reporters, and carried his work ethic like a badge of honour.

He walked the delicate line between delivering on management’s plan while trying to milk the most from an imbalanced roster.

We’ll never forget Keefe’s brilliant — and utterly unironic — response in the summer of 2020, when the world was shut down and a reporter lightheartedly asked if he had caught any episodes of Tiger King.

“The only thing I’ve been binge-watching is the Toronto Maple Leafs,” the coach replied.

Yep. Always preparing for the next puck drop.

Nice guy, tries hard, loves the game.

It’s that attitude that will ensure Keefe finds work soon.

And it’s Thursday’s overdue decision that removes one more layer from the forcefield protecting the organization’s greater issue.

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.