After Babcock firing, Leafs continue trip at Arizona

Field Level Media

The Toronto Maple Leafs have officially turned the page on the Mike Babcock era, firing the head coach on Wednesday, 23 games into his fifth season with the team.

Sheldon Keefe, who previously led the AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies, will make his debut as an NHL coach on Thursday night when the Leafs visit the Arizona Coyotes.

"Mike's commitment and tireless work ethic has put our organization in a better place and we are extremely grateful and appreciative of the foundation he has helped us build here," team president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement. "At this time, we collectively felt that it was best to make a change to Sheldon Keefe."

The news came a day after the Maple Leafs lost 4-2 to the Vegas Golden Knights for their sixth straight loss. The defeat followed a players-only meeting, addressing issues from a 9-10-4 start to the season.

The Leafs will be playing their third game on a six-game road trip against a team that has won four of its past five, including two consecutive 3-0 shutouts at home Monday over the Los Angeles Kings and Saturday against the Calgary Flames.

"We talked about what we needed to talk about and it was just an open discussion with the players and get a clear view on what we think needs to happen. ..." Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin said, before Babcock's firing. "When you have a lot of skill guys and a team that is skilled, you just rely on the skill sometimes and it takes more than that."

The Maple Leafs played a stronger game against the Golden Knights, whose goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury might have made the difference, particularly with a spectacular save in the third period.

Toronto has been playing without Mitch Marner (sprained ankle), Alex Kerfoot (dental fractures) and Trevor Moore (shoulder). Kerfoot likely will be the first to return.

After playing nine of 13 games on the road, the Coyotes are on a stretch with six of eight at home, with seven Pacific Division opponents in that stretch.

The Maple Leafs are an exception, playing in the Atlantic Division, but their star center Auston Matthews was raised in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"These are the games you need to win," Coyotes left winger Lawson Crouse said of the two-week stretch. "They're against your division and you can't be throwing those points away. It's big."

"This week here, at least we're home a little bit," Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. "Before it was like a game or two and we're out of here."

Tocchet said his team is still looking to define itself.

"We're still trying to put structure in that identity," Tocchet said. "We're trying to find who we are. We're getting there. I mean, we really defend the puck well, and things like that are helping to create our identity. But it's always a work in progress. All the really good hockey clubs, you know nine times out of 10 you're getting that identity."

While the Maple Leafs have been trying to improve their backup goaltending behind starter Frederik Andersen, the Coyotes have a strong combination in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, who each earned a shutout Saturday and Monday, respectively. Kuemper has two shutouts in 14 games this season, and Raanta has one in eight games.

Kuemper has a league-best 1.85 goals-against average and the best save percentage (.938) among goaltenders who have started more than 10 games.

--Field Level Media

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