Usually when an NHL head coach signs a two-year extension, it can be seen as a vote of confidence from management. But I think Sheldon Keefe’s new deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs is nothing more than a time buy for GM Brad Treliving.
Going into the 2023-24 season with Keefe on an expiring contract would have been a terrible scenario in Toronto. Every media scrum would feature questions about his future. Simply put: having Keefe on a lame duck deal would have created a massive distraction.
For me, Treliving did the right thing in extending Keefe. Especially since the Leafs GM had already publicly committed to having Keefe behind the Leafs bench for the upcoming season. Treliving lifted a burden off his head coach and gave him a chance to focus solely on winning the Stanley Cup.
When a new GM comes to town – like Treliving did during the 2023 offseason – there are big decisions to be made. From firing coaches to hiring additional support staff, everything is on the table.
I’m sure Treliving did his due diligence and spoke with the Maple Leafs players regarding Keefe. There’s no reason to can a guy just because you’re new to the job and want to shake up the apple cart. Sticking with Keefe means that Treliving thinks he’s the right person for the job.
At least for now. Because things can change in a matter of weeks or days in the NHL.
Just because Keefe is under contract for the next three seasons doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to be the coach of the Maple Leafs. It just means he’s going to be paid by the team for that duration.
The reality is that – especially for a team like Toronto that has nearly unlimited funds – Keefe is still on the hot seat to perform. And with the Leafs finally clear of the eight-year contract awarded to former head coach Mike Babcock in 2015, the franchise is no longer doling out salary to two coaches.
The bottom line is that Treliving – despite all the kind words he’s said about Keefe being the right person to lead the team to success – can afford to fire Keefe at any point. Toronto can afford to eat the salary if need be.
So beyond the contractual stuff, do I think Keefe deserved another two years? Yes, I do. But I also think his runway is short. Like, really short.
Regardless of the final outcome of the 2022-23 season for the Leafs – losing to the Florida Panthers in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs – I think the team took a step forward. Mitch Marner became a better all-around player. William Nylander had a career year. And the goaltending – with Ilya Samsonov claiming the crease – improved over the previous campaign.
That’s a credit to the players, as well as Keefe. But the problem is that I believe the Leafs were out-coached by Panthers bench boss Paul Maurice. Florida was able to exploit areas of Toronto’s defense, and Keefe wasn’t able to adapt quickly enough. For me, the Leafs looked overmatched at times during the series, which shouldn’t happen given the team’s star power.
For some, the five-game, second-round loss would have been grounds for Keefe’s immediate dismissal. And even more so with a new GM taking the helm in Treliving. But I think it’s important to consider the career arc and timing of all involved.
Auston Matthews. Mitch Marner. William Nylander. All in their mid-twenties. And all are starting to finally play with a maturity to their game. Marner was great defensively this season. Matthews picked it up in that area, as well. And despite being inconsistent, Nylander was at times the Leafs’ best player. There’s more to unlock with each of them.
My point is that I think the core group of Leafs players have continued to find areas of improvement. And Keefe has been the shepherd. They weren’t going to get there with Babcock in charge. And if Treliving brought in someone else at this point: who knows what happens?
By extending Keefe, Treliving gets an extended look at the coach and team without having to do anything drastic. By Thanksgiving he’ll know if Keefe is truly the right person for the job. No question Treliving already has Plan B ready to go. Probably even a Plan C and D. As every general manager should.
Time is limited in any market, and it’s especially true for Toronto where the intensity is 10 out of 10 every waking minute of the day. And Treliving knows that he’ll only get one shot to hire a head coach after Keefe, if and when that day comes.
I think it’s pretty simple for Treliving. Either the Leafs win the Stanley Cup in 2024, or he moves on from Keefe. There’s really no in between unless Toronto gets goalie’d late in the postseason.
NHL general managers typically get to hire two coaches before their time expires in a city. And even though Keefe was already the head coach of Maple Leafs prior to Treliving’s arrival, his extension means that the Leafs’ new GM has already used up one of his hires.
The pressure is on for both. The players vouched for Keefe: now it’s Stanley Cup or bust. Because Treliving can’t afford to be patient.
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