Mike Babcock fired by Leafs, replaced by Sheldon Keefe

The Toronto Maple Leafs have fired head coach Mike Babcock and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe.

Babcock had a record of 9-10-4 in 2019-20 for the struggling Leafs, who are 0-5-1 in their last six games, including five straight losses in regulation.

Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan flew to Arizona on Wednesday to break the news to Babcock along with general manager Kyle Dubas. Shanahan said that he felt he should be present as he hired Babcock in the spring of 2015.

“It wasn’t an easy conversation to have and it wasn’t pleasant, days like today are not,” Shanahan said in Scottsdale, Ariz. “But it was what we felt was important for the club. Once you realize there’s something you should do, and have to do, then it’s best to act on it.”

Toronto, which currently sits two points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, fell 4-2 to the Golden Knights in Vegas on Tuesday. Babcock’s last win for the Leafs, on Nov. 7 against Vegas, was the 700th of his NHL career.

He has a career record of 700-418-183 with Toronto, Detroit and Anaheim.

WATCH | Why the Leafs fired Mike Babcock:

After 23 games played during the 2019-2020 NHL season, the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock. And there’s a laundry list of reasons why it happened. 1:19

Hired as part of a massive rebuild, the 56-year-old Babcock went 173-133-45 in his four-plus seasons with Toronto. He joined the Leafs with an impressive resume, having won the Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008 and back-to-back Olympic gold medals with Canada in 2010 and 2014.

After signing the richest coaching contract in NHL history at $ 50 million US over eight years, Babcock got Toronto to the playoffs the last three seasons, but was unable to advance beyond the first round.

Babcock said in a statement to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun he was appreciative of his time in Toronto.

“I thought we did an amazing job taking a franchise from where it was to where we had 100-point seasons, we set franchise records if I’m not mistaken, got into the playoffs. I’m disappointed,” said Babcock in the statement posted to Twitter.

WATCH | Shanahan discusses Babcock firing:

Leafs president Brendan Shanahan spoke shortly after the firing of head coach Mike Babcock. 1:02

Babcock also thanked the players he worked with during his tenure with the Leafs. 

“Morgan Rielly has been here the whole time. I can’t thank him enough. And all the players I got an opportunity to coach. It’s been fantastic and I wish them nothing but success.”

Keefe, Dubas have long history

The 39-year-old Keefe, who has a long history with Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, was in his fifth season as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies.

Keefe was 199-89-31 with the Marlies and helped secure the franchise’s first Calder Cup championship in 2018.

“Our relationship has grown,” Keefe said of Dubas in May. “He really opened my eyes to how much there is to learn and how to look at things a little bit differently.”

WATCH | Shanahan discusses promotion of Sheldon Keefe:

Brendan Shanahan had nothing but good things to say about Toronto’s new head coach Sheldon Keefe after Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday. 1:46

Babcock’s Leafs stumbled this season despite a star-studded forward group led by Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, a defence corps headlined by Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin, and goalie Frederik Andersen.

Toronto was unable to find traction after a summer of change that saw a number of Babcock’s trusted veterans leave town as part of a salary cap crunch precipitated by big-money contract extensions handed to Matthews and Marner.

“Our game is not really meeting our expectations,” Shanahan said. “We’re mistake-prone on defence, the attention to details aren’t there, and even the explosive offence that our team was known for has been missing for a while now, so there’s a lot of work for Sheldon to do and there’s a lot of work for the players to do.”

1st-round blues

The young Leafs surprised many by making the playoffs in 2016-17 before falling to the Washington Capitals in six games. Babcock was unable to get Toronto past the Boston Bruins the last two springs, losing both series in seven games.

The 2019 series was especially frustrating given that the Leafs led 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 with a chance to close things out at home in Game 6 before the Bruins fought back to win two straight.

WATCH | Leafs suffer sixth straight loss:

Vegas Golden Knights net minder Marc-Andre Fleury was electric making 31 saves for his 450th career win. Fleury made a terrific diving glove save late in the game helping his team to a 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. 1:52

While there’s no questioning Babcock’s track record, there seemed to be a disconnect between the coach and GM in terms of roster construction and style of play after Dubas took over the top job from Lou Lamoriello in May 2018.

Driven by data and analytics, Dubas focused on skill and speed — basically trying to win with four first lines — rather than the grinding type of player Babcock had previously preferred in his bottom-six forward group.

Toronto’s lack of attention to detail in the defensive zone the last two seasons and sub-par specialty teams were both troubling aspects Babcock was unable to rectify, even after changing assistant coaches this season.

On the hot seat

Before the season, Dubas was asked about his relationship with Babcock, who was heavily criticized for his deployment of Matthews in Game 7 of Toronto’s first-round playoff exit last spring.

“We talk a lot,” Dubas said at the start of training camp. “We disagree, as any coach and GM do a lot. We agree on a lot of things and we work through it all. The key is, on areas that you disagree, that you respect one another and you work through all that.”

“We communicate all the time,” Babcock added in September. “We don’t agree all the time. I’ve enjoyed it. We’re excited about our opportunity.”

Babcock also knew he’d be on the hot seat if things went sideways.

“I do, for sure,” Babcock said. “The expectation each and every year should be greater than the previous year if you’re going in the right direction.”

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