Coach Killers Will Claim Another

TORONTO (Jan. 14) — Sheldon Keefe seemed onto something last year. For the first time since Pat Quinn stood behind the bench, the Maple Leafs played acceptable defensive hockey. There was structure behind center ice and the club scraped 31 goals off its total. In fact, the 222 allowed represented the lowest figure for the Leafs in a full, 82–game schedule since 2003–04, when Quinn led the club to a then–record 103 points and a still–record 16–game undefeated streak (14–0–2). Keefe’s number from last season remains the fifth–fewest goals permitted by the Leafs since the advent of the 80–game schedule in 1974–75 (only the Quinn teams, from 2000–04, were better). Why, then, is the club on pace to cough up 263 goals this season, its highest figure since 2011–12?

What is it that causes two and three–goal leads to become so perilous for the Blue and White — the latest example being on Saturday when the team couldn’t score again after building a 3–0 advantage in the first period? As the Colorado Avalanche, far–more synergetic than the Leafs, began their comeback in the middle frame, you could feel the match slipping away. Which finally happened when Nathan MacKinnon beat Martin Jones at 16:35 of the third period (Ross Colton added an empty net goal with seven seconds left). It’s a recurring theme for Toronto and it causes me to wonder if the coach killers will soon claim another victim. Have the big–money boys up front tuned out their latest bench boss, as they did Mike Babcock in 2019? Will it require such a proven champion as Joel Quenneville to grab the attention of these frequent floaters? Or, is it possible the Maple Leafs, as currently structured, would not prevail even with Quenneville, Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour standing behind them?

Toronto hockey fans that remember the “Muskoka 5” era from 2008 must be longing for a return. At least Mats Sundin, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Darcy Tucker (defenseman Pavel Kubina was the fifth member, legendarily coined by Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox) posed a threat during the Stanley Cup sprint, winning six playoff rounds, four of them against Division rival Ottawa, and making it to the Cup semifinals in 2002 (losing to Carolina). They refused to waive no–trade clauses for the betterment of the team — preferring, instead, to remain in their “Muskoka” cottages — but that group had playoff mettle. And, when the situation turned pear–shaped in 2005–06, Quinn was fired (fairly or otherwise) by general manager John Ferguson Jr. Point being that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment lost patience after just one sub–par season of the salary cap era. Toronto would not qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament in a full, 82–game schedule for 13 long years, until 2017, once William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews had been secured in the National Hockey League draft. MLSE is still riding the coattails of the Core–3 (soon to be 4 with the free agent signing of John Tavares) despite fluking out but a single Cup round: last spring against playoff–weary Tampa Bay. One narrow series triumph in seven years.

How satisfied, then, is ownership as we reach the mid–season mark, tonight, with Detroit in town?*
*The Red Wings scored three unanswered goals in the third period to come from behind; win 4–2 and hand the Leafs a lost weekend.

That is, of course, to assume the Ivory Tower occupants at Rogers and Bell are paying attention. We cannot be certain. Their most–recent project was luring Keith Pelley back from across the pond to become Chief Executive Officer of MLSE. Given the pattern through more than a half–decade, it is difficult to imagine the Leafs making a bold move until Pelley arrives from his European golf commitment in three months. By then, the club might already be withering in the early Stanley Cup pursuit. If, as it appears, the vaunted Core has stopped listening to Keefe, does MLSE turn a blind eye? Or, will the coach killers claim a second victim before Pelley moves back to the city? Remember, Keefe was not hired by current general manager Brad Treliving. Rather, he was inherited; then (on Aug. 30) provided a bit of financial security with a two–year extension. Just as Brian Burke accorded Ron Wilson (in December 2011) before firing his ex–college friend three months later (Randy Carlyle took over). Contracts for NHL coaches aren’t worth the paper on which they appear. As such, Keefe could be in some trouble.

Particularly with one of the most–decorated bench bosses lurking in the shadows. As of mid–December, Joel Quenneville had not been cleared to return by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. The one–time first draft pick of the Leafs (in 1978) “resigned” as coach of the Florida Panthers in October 2021. In fact, Quenneville was suspended indefinitely by the league for his deafening silence in the Kyle Beach affair of 2010; the former player claiming, in a law suit, he’d been sexually abused by Chicago video coach Brad Aldrich. With Quenneville looking the other way. If so, an inexcusable lapse in judgement. Time, however, heals virtually all wounds and one of Quenneville’s NHL counterparts — Bill Peters, late of the Carolina Hurricanes — returned this season as coach of the junior Lethbridge Hurricanes (a coincidence). That, after being sent to the sideline when a black player (Akim Aliu) claimed that Peters had addressed him using a racial epithet. There will be no attempt here to gauge which was worse: ignoring the cries of a sexual–abuse victim or allegedly invoking the heinous ‘N’–word. All I know is the coach with the second–most career NHL wins (969) to Scotty Bowman is out there and seeking reinstatement.

With three Stanley Cup rings to his credit in a six–season span (2010–15) while guiding the Blackhawks.

Of course, MLSE could still be haunted by its “can’t–miss” procurement, in May 2015, of Babcock, who piloted Detroit to the 2008 Stanley Cup; then won consecutive Olympic gold medals with Team Canada (2010 in Vancouver; 2014 in Sochi). The Ivory Tower boys made Babcock the highest–paid hockey coach of all time, only to cut ties 4½ years into an eight–year commitment (Nov. 20, 2019) amid a near–revolt by his players and after twice losing to Boston in the opening round of the Cup tournament (which followed a six–game elimination, by Washington, in 2017). Quenneville has never been accused of tricking or riding roughshod over chattels in St. Louis, Colorado, Chicago or Florida, his four NHL stops. He’s a proven winner, albeit with the benefit of two–time Norris Trophy recipient Duncan Keith, a defenseman that no current Maple Leaf comes close to emulating. Nor has since Borje Salming was in his prime in the late–1970’s. It is nearly impossible to win the Stanley Cup in the absence of such a blue line stalwart. But, Quenneville’s résumé is obviously far–more attractive than Keefe’s.

One would have to assume that Pelley and Treliving have conversed about the coaching situation. At least briefly. Given the No. 2 coach, all time, could soon be available, it is difficult to envision Pelley moving forward with Keefe. The big question is whether MLSE will make a change before Pelley arrives. The longer the overpaid “leaders” tune out their latest coaching victim, the better the chance of a significant move.


13 comments on “Coach Killers Will Claim Another

  1. I agree that Quenneville’s coaching resume was a recipient of the brilliance of Duncan Keith but I still think Toronto needs a coaching change if/when he comes available. Toronto is disorganized in their end, their puck advancement is weak, and it drives me bonkers to watch Marner bring the puck up the ice. Marner should be up ice waiting for a pass from the defense.
    You can’t trade the players as they all have no-trade clauses. You can fire the coach and the GM. You can also change the way the Marlies play and focus on the development of defensemen (It won’t help the big club this year, but it will help them down the road).

  2. Somehow it feels unfair to blame the coaches or even the core 5 themselves…they are all likely doing the best they can with a lineup construct that is stacked against them. 5 guys making 60% of the cap is the issue, and it has to be owned by Shanahan. He’s the one that has to go first (I think that’s the reason the board is bringing in Pelley in the first place…to do the dirty work of firing Shanny, which they don’t want to do themselves). First Shanahan goes and the new President can figure out what to do with the Core 5, figure out if he wants to retain Treliving, and then he (or a new GM) brings on his own new coach. That should be the natural order of things.

  3. “Or, is it possible the Maple Leafs, as currently structured, would not prevail even with Quenneville, Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour standing behind them?”
    I’ll take the reason the leaf’s continue to faceplant for 1000 points Howard/Alex. I don’t watch Jeopardy so I’m not sure I have that right, but I’m 100% sure of 2 things – Mathews, Marner and Nylander will eventually leave the leafs wealthier than they could ever have envisioned and without a single appearance in a stanley cup final or likely a conference final.
    I don’t know what’s more frustrating, the team paying 40-50% of their salary cap to 4 guys or that they appear to believe it will eventually work?

    1. One thing not normally mentioned when talking about contracts in Toronto is taxes. With the Salary cap players sign in Tampa for much lower overall salaries but make more than the core 4. I.e Steven Stamkos and Brayden point when compared to Tavares and Marner.

      Canadian markets are the most screwed markets by the salary cap that doesnt take into account local taxes. (probably purposefully by Bettman.)

      Lose 6% of your salary or 50% (ontario also has HST which is 13% of EVERY purchase)

  4. Bellows is on an AHL tryout because he couldnt’ make it in the NHL with the Islanders. Pretty sure he’s not getting anyone a “decent right D” in a trade

  5. Can the Leafs still trade Nylander at this point? I know the new deal that kicks in next year has a full NMC but his current deal does not.

    He could be traded to 22 possible teams and seeing as he would be more than a rental his value would be higher than it was a month ago.

  6. Watched the Marlies hammer Bellville 7-0 the other night. Guy named Ryan Tverberg (6′, 190lb), one of the three Leafs 7th round picks in 2020, scored four goals. He shoots right, and all four goals were one-timers from near the left circle. They say repetition makes perfect, but the poor goalie missed all four shots while trying to sweep from his left post to the right post. Missed by a mile on each one. Another good looking prospect is Kieffer Bellows, 6’1″ 195 and not afraid of contact. He fed Tverberg for a couple of his goals. Both these guys are near the team lead in points per game. Bring ’em up or trade them for a decent right D.

  7. The next Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs is already there. Assistant Coach Guy Boucher will take over if Sheldon Keefe is let go. It’s no guarantee that Keefe will finish the season as Head Coach. There’s also no guarantee that Keefe will be fired after this season as well because they fear Penguins GM Kyle Dubas will fire Mike Sullivan on the spot and bring in Keefe to take over behind the bench in Pittsburgh.

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