Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe earns important assurances with reported extension

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have allowed Sheldon Keefe to focus on the present. (Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Toronto Maple Leafs have allowed Sheldon Keefe to focus on the present. (Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nothing's official, but all signs point to Sheldon Keefe inking a two-year extension to carry him through the 2023-24 NHL season as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Keefe had been entering the final season of his original contract with Toronto after famously taking over for Mike Babcock in November 2019.

To some, it might seem like a questionable decision on the part of management, or maybe more specifically the higher-ups surely watching over this season with an intensely critical eye. Correctly or not, this season has been billed, at least for a select few, as a make-or-break campaign. On the surface, investing more future time and energy into one of the single-most influential members of the organization in terms of impacting success or failure seems to belie that narrative.

But the decision to extend Keefe makes loads of sense for several reasons — most of which outweigh the risk for a sports team with the financial might like the Maple Leafs, which is paying out salary to an excused asset.

First, the Leafs are wise to eliminate any potential distractions this season, especially around the head coach. Following first-round exit after first-round exit, the situation demands that everyone's time and energy is channelled into pulling on the same lever, and that's far easier to accomplish, especially for a head coach, when there are assurances in place.

Perhaps more importantly than that, it's entirely possible that the desperate conditions for some this season need not apply to Keefe. 

The link is obvious between Leafs GM Kyle Dubas and Keefe, who the former recruited to the organization after the two first linked up with Sault Ste. Marie in the Ontario Hockey League. Keefe not-so-secretly became the preferred choice for Dubas, and the GM put his cards on the table the moment he felt he had grounds to fire Babcock, elevating Keefe from the Toronto Marlies.

By nature of the decision — and the business — it could be deduced that Dubas is, in many ways, inextricably bound to Keefe. While on the flip side, it's possible that Keefe is breaking free of those bonds through performance alone — even if postseason success has eluded him to this point.

Keefe has arguably outperformed Dubas since his hiring, earning plaudits and trust in other corners of the organization for his coaching performance. He helped rescue the team from the Babcock-dug ditch in 2019-20, leading a 27-15-5 record down the stretch. He then improved on that mark considerably in his first full(ish) season in charge, overseeing a dominant 35-win, division title-clinching season in last year's shortened 56-game campaign. 

It all amounts to a 69-29-12 overall record and a .660 win percentage under conditions that would be considered less than ideal.

Keefe owns a segment of last season's playoff disappointment, no doubt. But two things outside of his control — roster construction and the performance of star players — seem to be the determining factors weighing heavier at this point. 

For that reason the focus is elsewhere, first.

It should be said, though, that just as quickly as Keefe has earned backing, it could be lost. After five seasons of bitter first-round disappointment, and steps needing to be taken in a far more difficult division in 2021-22, the omnipresent pressure inside the organization could easily shift. 

Keefe's extension offers short-term financial security, not job security. If he fails to hold up his end of the bargain, he will not be safe from the firing line if the organization is forced to reassess after suffering a similar fate. 

It will only allow Keefe to focus on the present, which is all that really matters.

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