Sheldon Keefe is out as Maple Leafs coach. Brendan Shanahan’s case to stay has never been weaker

By firing Sheldon Keefe as head coach Thursday morning, the Toronto Maple Leafs made it clear that winning one round of five playoff series was not enough.

Which is fair enough. But now the attention will almost certainly turn to the person at the top of the organization, team president Brendan Shanahan, who has been around twice as long — 10 seasons — and who himself has only won ‘only one playoff victory.

For a decade, Shanahan stayed above the fray. Even now, with new MLSE President Keith Pelley in place and ready to address the media Friday morning, he appears to enjoy job security.

Although the team has not yet confirmed that Shanahan will remain president, the fact that Keefe was fired and that Shanahan will appear at this press conference alongside Pelley and general manager Brad Treliving suggests that he will not go anywhere go.

The case for sticking with him and his vision has never been weaker.

It’s almost unusual for a professional sports executive to have such a long career with so little playoff success, while clinging to unorthodox roster construction that has backfired time and time again.

The team that eliminated the Leafs in the first round last week hired its president, Cam Neely, four years before Shanahan was named by Tim Leiweke to lead the Leafs. During Neely’s tenure, the Bruins made the Stanley Cup Final three times and won one championship. They’ve also won 15 playoff rounds (and counting) during that span.

In Toronto, the responsibility falls on everyone except the person running the show and the group of five players he has supported and championed for years.

As a head coach, the team has experienced Randy Carlyle, Peter Horachek, Mike Babcock and now Keefe during the Shanahan era. And while it’s true that Shanahan didn’t hire Carlyle, he extended his contract shortly after taking over in the spring of 2014, shortly after the team took a nosedive under Carlyle’s watch.

Many coaches during his tenure? No, but the order of hiring was unusual and bound to cause disruption.

Shanahan, notably, signed Babcock to an eight-year contract before hiring a replacement for general manager Dave Nonis. Shanahan liked to say that he wasn’t afraid to go against convention in this way, but it meant that Lou Lamoriello, Nonis’ eventual replacement, and Kyle Dubas, Lamoriello’s successor, were linked to a coach on a long-term deal they didn’t have. hand in hand for hiring.

It did not work. Dubas fired Babcock a few months into his second season as general manager and replaced him with Keefe, a mid-season shakeup that led to a round-robin elimination against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Even the bridge from Lamoriello to Dubas was inconvenient.

Lamoriello ran the show for three seasons before being replaced by Dubas, a young rookie general manager who quickly began undoing some of his predecessor’s biggest moves, including a seven-year contract with defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (granted in Ottawa at Connor’s price). Brown) and a costly commitment to Patrick Marleau (dealt to Carolina for a first-round pick that ended up 13th overall).

Dubas’ inexperience showed in the second player-friendly contracts that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner won from the team. William Nylander’s second deal ultimately proved to be a win for the Leafs, but came at the cost of the longest contract dispute of the salary cap era — and a lost 2018-19 season for Nylander.

Shanahan inherited Nonis as general manager, but also waited a full season (and a disastrous one at that) to fire him. Treliving is the fourth full-time general manager of his tenure, but the fifth if you include the summer when Dubas and Mark Hunter shared duties on an interim basis.

The most problematic aspect of Shanahan’s vision, however, was his unwillingness to change (Shana’s) plan when playoff results demanded it. Unwavering confidence in the five-pack of Matthews, Marner, Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly helped the Leafs rack up wins in the regular season, but backfired when that star power failed to shine when it mattered.

“They’re very unique players and hard to get,” Shanahan said after the 2021 playoffs, which saw the Leafs lose a 3-1 series to heavy underdog Montreal. “You just can’t give up on these guys. You just can’t give up on players who care that much – and they do.

Shanahan deserves credit for turning around the Leafs and restoring the franchise’s prestige off the ice. The Leafs were one of the league’s weakest franchises when he took over, having missed the playoffs in eight of their previous nine seasons. The two best regular seasons in franchise history have since passed under his leadership.

But ultimately, that’s not why Shanahan was hired. He was hired to erase a Stanley Cup drought that has now lasted 57 years.

The Leafs did not come close to this goal.

Leaving another coach can’t be the only big change for his team this offseason, not after another failure with this core group.

Besides changing coaches, trading Marner (if he even agrees to a trade) could be part of a larger solution. But the roster needs are significant. The blue line requires major repairs. Another quality goalie is needed to at least work in tandem with Joseph Woll. Center ice could be an even bigger need now than before as Tavares enters his 16th NHL season.

This front office needs a lot of things to do after a year of failures.

That said, Keefe has had as many opportunities as he could have hoped for with the Leafs. His teams could never translate the abundant offense they generated in the regular season to the playoffs. Special teams were a perennial problem. And with a few exceptions, his Leaf teams have been modest in the biggest moments. A case for a change could have been made after any of four previous playoff disappointments, including last spring when the Leafs finally won a round before losing to Florida in five games.

Were these failures related to coaching or personnel? Or both?

If management had changed the roster in a more meaningful and productive way this past offseason, perhaps trading Marner (before his no-movement clause took effect) for a different type of forward high-impact player or a legitimate top-four defenseman, could the Leafs have pulled it off? differently last spring? Would they have progressed deeper into the playoffs with more impactful additions at the trade deadline?

We’ll never know.

It remains to be seen whether Treliving and Shanahan will find Keefe’s replacement behind the bench.

When Treliving took over the Calgary Flames in 2014, he retained starter Bob Hartley for two seasons. He replaced him with Glen Gulutzan, who was waived after two seasons and replaced by Bill Peters, who lasted one and changed. Next come Geoff Ward and Darryl Sutter.

It was an unsuccessful revolving door behind the bench.

Typically, teams look for opposites when changing coaches. So will the Leafs, a finesse team under Keefe, turn to a more working-class identity? Will this be a good thing? Will this work with the talent currently in place?

There was a legitimate reason to leave Keefe on Thursday. He had five chances to propel the Leafs into the playoffs and failed to do so.

But if that’s why the coach stepped down, the question remains: Should the team president, who has been here twice as long, be safe?

(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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