When the Toronto Maple Leafs failed to advance deep in the playoffs once again, change appeared to be on the way — and Sheldon Keefe seemed likely to lose his job.
That's not to say that Keefe had not performed well behind the team's bench, it's just that firing a head coach is a typical move for a club hoping to shake things up. It's safe to say Toronto's offseason has been anything but typical thus far, though. The Maple Leafs showed GM Kyle Dubas the door and brought aboard Brad Treliving, leaving Keefe's future unclear.
Treliving has showed an openness to keeping Keefe behind the bench, but he's also conceded that he has no relationship with him, and needs more information to make a decision on the team's coaching situation.
While the Maple Leafs new GM weighs the pros and cons, here's a rundown of the case for and against keeping Keefe.
The case for retaining Keefe
Some Maple Leafs fans will have a hard time associating Keefe with winning considering his 13-17 NHL playoff record, but it's hard to deny the success he's had.
Out of 390 NHL coaches in history, Keefe's regular-season points percentage (.678) ranks ninth all time. There isn't a single bench boss who has coached more games than the Maple Leafs coach with a better point percentage.
The only coach who can beat Keefe's .678 with more than 200 games coached is Tom Johnson — who helmed the Boston Bruins for three seasons during Bobby Orr's prime.
At the AHL level, Keefe has a 199-89-31 regular-season record with nine playoff rounds won and a Calder Cup title in 2017-18. Going back to the OHL his two full years as the head coach of the Soo Greyhounds resulted in a 98-27-9 record and three victorious playoff rounds.
Although Keefe is just 42, he has plenty of experience piling up wins at a variety of levels. NHL playoff success has been elusive, but he made deep postseason runs earlier in his career, meaning he has been unfazed by pressure and successfully game planned for short series in the past.
Keefe's Maple Leafs teams have also consistently demonstrated characteristics that point to good coaching. Since he took over on November 22 2019, Toronto ranks second in power-play percentage (23.5%) and ninth in penalty killing (81.0%). They also rank eighth in shot-attempt percentage (51.9%), suggests an organized and effective possession game.
Beyond raw results, it seems clear that Keefe has done a good job of creating an atmosphere in Toronto that the players have responded to. If he made things miserable for his team, its top stars wouldn't have unanimously expressed a desire to remain with the Maple Leafs after another playoff disappointment after losing to the Florida Panthers.
It is possible Keefe has made things too comfortable for his stars at times — more on that later — but keeping your top players motivated to keep pulling in the same direction seems like a feather in the coach's cap.
The case for letting Keefe go
Most of the reasons to move on from Keefe are subjective, but that doesn't mean they're wrong.
For instance, when the coach called out his top stars at the beginning of the season, then seemed to back down days later and say that he "used some of the wrong words" that didn't inspire confidence.
Did the fact he appeared unable to stick to his guns cost the Maple Leafs any wins in 2022-23? Probably not, considering they went 48-19-11 from the day he backpedalled on. Did it indicate a lack of assertiveness behind the scenes that could matter? Perhaps.
Keefe has also demonstrated a level of trust for certain players whose play hasn't always warranted it. For instance, he stayed with Justin Holl too long in the 2022-23 playoffs despite the fact the defenceman was hurting his team.
On the flip side, Rasmus Sandin was rarely able to get consistent minutes from Keefe after debuting in 2019-20. As soon as he was traded to the Washington Capitals, he started skating 22:59 a night and produced 15 points in 19 games. Timothy Liljegren has bounced in and out of Keefe's circle of trust despite possessing some enticing skills.
Although Keefe's playoff record comes from a relatively small 30-game sample, there are reasons it hasn't earned rave reviews.
Most notably, the power play that has been so good during the regular season has floundered during the playoffs. The Maple Leafs have scored on just 17.7% of their postseason power plays under Keefe.
It's impossible to attribute that entirely to the coach, but it does invite questions about whether the Maple Leafs have been too predictable on that side of their special teams in recent years — allowing teams seeing them night after night to adjust.
Arguments against Keefe can feel flimsy as they tend to be based on small samples of playoff hockey and speculation around accountability — or just assertions that change is a must regardless of how good a coach he is.
It's difficult to disprove the idea the Keefe is a solid coach based on his track record, but the bottom line is that during his time with the Maple Leafs his team has not met expectations when it has mattered most.
For many, that's justification enough to move on.