Leafs’ Sheldon Keefe expresses confidence in the future as management lets him twist in the wind

TORONTO — If this was the last time Sheldon Keefe stepped behind a microphone as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he went out with head held high.

Placed in what had to be an uncomfortable position, speaking to reporters at Monday’s locker cleanout session with no formal assurance he’ll be back behind the team’s bench next season, Keefe both took responsibility for a seven-game first-round loss to the Boston Bruins and projected confidence about his ability to ensure it isn’t repeated next year.

“I believe in myself greatly,” he said. “I love coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now more than ever, I believe in myself and our team and that I will win and our team will win.”

Whether he’ll get that opportunity is the burning question left hanging in the air during this 72-hour window before we hear from general manager Brad Treliving and, perhaps, team president Brendan Shanahan on Thursday.

That’s a notable departure from how the Leafs have handled end-of-season media duties in the past and will only fuel speculation that Keefe’s future is still being deliberated.



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While he remains under contract through 2025-26, having signed a two-year extension last August that still hasn’t officially kicked in yet, Keefe may not be able to avoid the firing line. Replacing him is the easiest major change the organization could pursue this offseason since its five highest-paid players all have contracts that include no-movement clauses.

It would also fall in line with a trend that’s seen 17 of Keefe’s colleagues fired by NHL teams in the past 13 months alone.

As a result of that unprecedented amount of turnover, there are a number of veteran coaches currently available for hire, Craig Berube, Todd McLellan and Gerard Gallant among them.

While Keefe boasts a regular-season points percentage that eclipses each of those men — his .665 is the highest among any coach in NHL history with at least 300 games of experience — they’ve all got resumes that include far more success in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That, in essence, is what Leafs management has to work through when making its coaching decision for next year: To what degree is Keefe ultimately responsible for his group’s inability to parlay a strong regular season into a long playoff run?

It’s been a consistent theme in his five trips to the postseason, four of which ended with a first-round loss. The Leafs have scored more than two goals in only one of their past 14 playoff games despite boasting a roster with multiple elite offensive talents. In this most recent series loss to the Bruins, they generated a league-worst 1.71 goals per game while going 1-for-21 on the power play.



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“Early in the series, we had no issues,” Keefe said. “We were generating lots (of chances). We were leading the league in inner-slot shots and rebounds and we were getting lots of pucks in there in the first few games of the series. Those dried up later on, yet we were also playing way better defensively ourselves and we didn’t really necessarily need as much offense to win games.

“I think the level of patience that we showed in those games is ultimately what it takes to win in the playoffs.”

In fact, Keefe believes they fell one goal shy of shifting the entire conversation around their group. Had they found a way to pull out an overtime win in Game 7 rather than allowing David Pastrnak to end their season on a set play that surprised the Toronto defenders, they would have advanced with three consecutive 2-1 victories and “then quickly the narrative changes to now the Leafs have figured out how to play tight games, win tight games,” Keefe said.

“Come from behind. Show fight. All of these sorts of things that you’re excited about. I came out of Game 6 feeling as good about the Toronto Maple Leafs as I’ve felt in this position. That’s because of how we were playing and how we were coming together.”

This is essentially the second straight spring where his future remained up in the air.

Keefe went through an exhaustive process after Treliving replaced his former boss, Kyle Dubas, that included 17 hours of meetings over three days last June. He basically had to convince a GM he had no prior relationship with that he was still the right man for the role.

“This gets done because I think we have a really good coach here,” Treliving said after giving Keefe the two-year extension last summer. “His record in the regular season has proved it. What he’s done in his young career here puts him with some real good company in terms of coaches past and present.

“The more I went through this process with Sheldon, the more it made a whole lot of sense to get something done, get him looked after and get that behind us.”

Keefe is the NHL’s fifth-longest-tenured coach and the top three have all won a Stanley Cup with their current teams: Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Mike Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jared Bednar of the Colorado Avalanche.

Rod Brind’Amour sits at No. 4 and has guided the Carolina Hurricanes to at least one playoff series victory in all six years he’s coached them. They are still alive right now and facing the New York Rangers in Round 2.

Keefe has just one series victory to show for his time with the Leafs but believes the team actually performed better overall during this year’s first-round loss to Boston than it did in last year’s six-game win over Tampa Bay, which included three overtime victories.

“I loved the resolve that we showed in this series in Games 5 and 6, in particular,” Keefe said. “It gave us a chance to compete in Game 7. But clearly that’s not enough and that sits with me.”

And so he waits to find out if he’ll be the man searching for solutions next year.



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(Photo: Nick Lachance / Getty Images)

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