Maple Leafs' top head coaching candidates to replace Sheldon Keefe

Should Toronto stick with Keefe, or should the organization look for a new voice behind the bench?

It took three regulation periods, nearly 16 minutes of overtime, and a sloppy 3-on-2 turnover, but the Maple Leafs finally met their demise Friday night, concluding their season at the hands of the Florida Panthers in five games.

The heartbreaking nature of the loss, earmarking a swift exit from Round 2 that followed a triumphant dragon-slaying Round 1 showing, brings about a reality that many thought the team had evolved beyond: the uncertainty of a disappointing conclusion.

No more than two weeks ago, the core was “saved”, having learned to “rise to the occasion” and busted through the proverbial wall. Now, one scorching hot Sergei Bobrovsky later, it’s groundhog day all over again, the masses calling for heads, blood, vengeance, or any number of offerings to satiate the hockey gods.

Questions on Kyle Dubas’ contract, the Core Four’s performance (or lack thereof), and the very fabric of the team’s DNA are amongst the most pressing in need of an answer, but none have dominated the discourse quite the way the future of head coach Sheldon Keefe has.

It’s a tempting proposition and one that would require relatively few gymnasts to send seismic shockwaves through Leafs Nation.

If Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe is let go after another premature playoff exit, who would be the best option to replace him? (Getty Images)
If Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe is let go after another premature playoff exit, who would be the best option to replace him? (Getty Images)

The man with the best regular season winning percentage of any coach in Maple Leafs history, unable to elevate when the moment calls for it, is held accountable for his team’s failures, dumped for failing to maximize the core, and swiftly replaced — potentially by the general manager he’s worked with for the better part of a decade.

Talk about a tragedy of Homeric proportions. Not to mention, a lack of messy salary cap implications, no movement clauses, or anything else of that nature certainly simplifies things, even if MLSE just finished paying off the final remnants of Mike Babcock’s 8-year behemoth contract.

And, of course, the will of the people is mighty strong as well.

So should Sheldon Keefe be brought back? And if not, who should be the next in line behind the bench?

How did things turn sour?

Keefe’s arrival back in November 2019 marked a period of renewed optimism for Maple Leaf fans, who appreciated his contrary style to the aforementioned Babcock. While the latter sought to create a tight checking and hard-nosed structure, Keefe’s free-flowing, possession-based offence helped turn around a slow start, though not before a certain Zamboni Driver and global pandemic cut his first campaign short.

From there, over the course of the following three seasons between 2021-2023, the ebbs and flows of an erratic Leafs team that concluded each season with playoff disappointment turned fans into skeptics into outright haters. Struggles to elevate his stars during the postseason, and difficulty ramping up the intensity with their backs against the wall, consistently came back to haunt Keefe, who often found himself out-coached despite holding the higher seed in every single playoff series he coached.

This time around, it was the bizarre decision to over-utilize outmatched secondary cogs such as Justin Holl, David Kampf, and Alex Kerfoot.

Holl, Toronto’s much-maligned right-handed blueliner and likely headed out the door with an expiring deal, was on the ice for 18 of Toronto’s 35 goals allowed despite ample time in the press box. David Kampf, himself also a pending unrestricted free agent, found himself taking offensive zone faceoffs after TV timeouts multiple times against Florida, a bizarre choice given the offensive firepower down the middle that few teams can match up with.

And, of course, there’s Alex Kerfoot, forever linked to the botched Nazem Kadri trade as ‘not quite a centerman but not quite a winger either’, yet somehow finding himself running beside John Tavares and William Nylander to close out the year because it was “as good as that line has been, with him there.”

Spoiler alert, not quite:

Courtesy: HockeyViz
Courtesy: HockeyViz

Note, both Tavares and Nylander produced better without Alex Kerfoot this season (closer to the right upper quadrant better)

Those decisions didn’t singularly cost Toronto their playoff hopes, but as a series moves along, little things can add up very quickly, as they did when things fell apart in Game 5.

Who takes the reins?

Options exist for the Maple Leafs should they choose to move on from Keefe, both internally and externally from the organization. They may not all represent a pure upgrade, but they would all certainly represent a strong message from the top down within the Maple Leafs headquarters: perform when it matters, or necessary changes will be made.

Andrew Brunette

The Panthers former coach himself, it may seem counterintuitive to go out and add a coach with the stench of playoff disappointment already on his suit, but there’s certainly more to the story.

For as good as the Panthers have been this postseason, last year’s regular season team was electric, and almost certainly deserved a better fate than losing in the second round to the Eastern Conference’ champion Tampa Bay Lighting. Taking over for Joel Quenneville amidst revelations surrounding Kyle Beach, Brunette allayed fears that he couldn’t fill Coach Q’s enormous shoes by deftly guiding the Panthers to their best season in franchise history.

After the playoffs came and went, the former Minnesota Wild Captain jumped on board with Lindy Ruff and the New Jersey Devils as an associate, helping guide them to a dramatic 49-point improvement year-over-year. As early as November, whispers of a return to head coaching made the rounds, clearly indicating interest remained out there.

In some ways, Brunette and his up-tempo style would be more of the same for the Maple Leafs, however, given their inability to score during Round 2, combined with Brunette’s resume already looking pretty good side-by-side with Keefe’s, the temptation is enormous.

Mike Sullivan

Despite the Penguins retaining the two-time Cup-winning coach, word is still out there that Coach Sullivan’s place in Pittsburgh is anything but secure. Ironically enough, it’s Keefe himself that supposedly could be in line to take over for the twilight of Crosby’s career.

Those same reports may have Sullivan more closely tied to the New York Rangers than the Toronto Maple Leafs, but who's to say that MLSE and their deep pockets couldn’t orchestrate a trade of sorts between the bench bosses?

The circumstances to pull off this heist may be one-in-a-million, little to no other reporting has Sullivan anywhere close to out the door in Pittsburgh — heck, he’s reportedly helping find his next boss — but where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and there’s no denying the type of message adding an individual like Sullivan would send to players and fans alike.

Spencer Carbery

If MLSE wants to take a page out of its own playbook, the Maple Leafs could choose to look just down the hall at the Toronto Raptors and see the success they had after firing Dwayne Casey.

The most successful coach in franchise history to that point, Casey was pushed aside for his little-known innovative assistant, former British Basketball League coach and now NBA champion Nick Nurse.

Carbery, in his own right, has been equally as influential at making the Maple Leafs a dynamic (regular season) team. Heading up the team’s power play, the 41-year-old turned a unit loaded with firepower and little creativity into a well-oiled machine, helping the club to their best 5-on-4 production in team history over the past two seasons.

Nevermind the fact that multiple teams have reportedly set their eyes on the Victoria, B.C. native, including two we know of in the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals, and it seems as though Carbery could be destined for greater things than managing special teams in Toronto for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps the biggest drawback in this move would be the fact that an internal hire likely doesn't carry the same bravado as an outside one. It goes without saying that Carbery knows the team well, and wouldn’t exactly be a ‘new voice’ in Toronto’s dressing room. It’s a calculated risk Toronto would need to make, not to mention there’s no guarantee that things would play out as they had for MLSE’s other cash cow organization.

Claude Julien

Perhaps unfairly, Claude Julien has built somewhat of an undeservedly poor reputation over the past several years.

At one time considered amongst the NHL’s coaching elite, Julien led the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup in 2011, their first in nearly 40 years at the time, and eventually became the league’s longest-tenured coach and Boston’s all-time wins leader.

By 2017, however, his message had grown stale. He was promptly fired despite his team owning the league’s top possession numbers. Roughly five years later, the Montreal Canadiens showed him the door in a similar scenario during the COVID-shortened 2021 season, as he led the Canadiens to a tremendously successful start rated highly by most advanced metrics, but found himself dumped after a long losing streak left Montreal needing a spark.

In combination with both Boston and Montreal reaching the Stanley Cup Final in short order under his successors — Bruce Cassidy in 2019 and Dom Ducharme in 2021 — and suddenly Julien finds himself with a reputation as a coach unable to get the most out of his players, seemingly through no fault of his own.

Whether the 2009 Jack Adams winner has any intentions to return to the game also remains to be seen, especially given that his name hasn’t appeared in many rumours surrounding coaching vacancies. Things can change very quickly in the National Hockey League, however, and a smart team such as the Maple Leafs may see the prior success he boasts, especially under the hood, and change that narrative very quickly.

Darryl Sutter

If you’re looking for a full-fledged, nuclear option, burn it to the ground or die trying, Sutter is probably your best option. Moulded from the same clay of fellow hotheads John Tortorella and Mike Keenan, Sutter undoubtedly gets the most out of his teams under most circumstances.

That is, of course, until his troops inevitably turn on him as they have in both Los Angeles and Calgary.

Even this season, Sutter’s Flames were by no means a bad team. The fourth-best team in the NHL by expected goals percentage, the Albertan farmhand had his team controlling the play when push came to shove.

The same, however, could not be said for his netminders. Jacob Markstrom and Daniel Vladar combined for a .893 save percentage in all situations and a flat .900 mark at 5-on-5, second worst in the league ahead of only the San Jose Sharks. A bottom-10 shooting percentage only made matters worse for the Flames, who despite perhaps the worst luck in the entire NHL, missed the postseason by the razor-thin margin of two points.

Brought to Toronto, Sutter would undoubtedly push the Core Four — or at least whatever remains of them — to their limit if he were to take the helm, that much is certain. The only question is whether or not they would be driven away by the 64-year-old, as was reportedly nearly the case in Calgary earlier this month.

Look at it this way: if you think Auston Matthews is western-bound anyways at the conclusion of his current contract, it’s not like you’ve got much to lose.