Mike Babcock, who was expected to change the fortunes of the Maple Leafs, was fired as head coach on Wednesday with the team in the midst of a six-game losing streak.
Handed the richest contract in NHL history in 2015, Babcock was unable to get Toronto beyond the first round of the playoffs. The team stumbled out of the gate this season and was 9-10-4 when he was dismissed.
Babcock will be replaced by Sheldon Keefe, who was in his fifth year as coach of the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. He will be behind the bench in Glendale, Ariz., on Thursday night when the Maple Leafs take on the Coyotes.
Brendan Shanahan, the club’s president and alternate governor, flew to Arizona from Toronto early in the day. He and general manager Kyle Dubas then met with Babcock and told him they were going to make a change.
“It wasn’t an easy conversation to have,” Shanahan told the media during a late-afternoon scrum at the Gila River Arena. “[But] once you realize there is something you should do and have to do, it is best to act on it.”
Shanahan, who signed Babcock to an eight-year US$50-million contract, said he and Dubas had watched the team languish over the past couple of weeks before they made the decision. As Shanahan addressed the media, Dubas spoke to the players.
“We feel that we haven’t played up to our expectations this year,” Shanahan said. “There are key elements to our game and attention to details has been missing.
“We are mistake-prone on defence and even our explosive offence has been missing for a while now.”
Toronto lost in Las Vegas on Tuesday and has won only twice in regulation time over its past 16 games. The Maple Leafs are fifth in the Atlantic Division, but only two points ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning and three in front of the lowly Ottawa Senators. Both have played fewer games.
“There is a lot of work for Sheldon to do, and for the players to do,” Shanahan said. “We really believe in them and in Sheldon and are still optimistic we can get back on track.”
Keefe led the Marlies to the AHL playoffs in each of the past four seasons, and helped them capture their first league championship in 2018. He faces enormous pressure in his first turn as an NHL coach, taking over an underachieving team in the sport’s biggest market.
A far better showing was expected from the Maple Leafs this season. Their lineup is girded with talented players who were awarded expensive long-term deals by Dubas.
Injuries have helped to expose the team’s lack of depth. Penalties have been an issue, the power play has been sorely lacking, penalty-killing has been weak, and goaltending has been erratic. Toronto has started two backup keepers a combined six times – and they have yet to record a win.
Babcock, who won a Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 and gold medals with Team Canada in 2010 and 2014, went 173-133-45 in four-plus seasons in Toronto. He had the fourth-most wins (700) of any active NHL coach when he was let go. “Mike’s commitment and tireless work ethic has put our organization in a better place and we are extremely grateful and appreciative of the foundation he has helped us build here,” Shanahan said in a statement released by the club. “At this time, we collectively felt that it was best to make a change to Sheldon Keefe.
“[His] record with the Marlies in terms of development and on-ice success during his time in our organization has compelled us to feel that he is the right person to take us to the next stage in our evolution.”
Keefe was 199-89-31 with the Marlies and 98-29-2-7 with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL before that.
Babcock took over a floundering franchise in the fall of 2015 and appeared to have it headed in the right direction. After garnering 69 points in his first season, the team had 95, 105 and 100 in the past three. They were eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by the Washington Capitals in 2017 and the Boston Bruins in 2018 and earlier this year.
The organization has won 13 Stanley Cups in all, but nary a one since 1967. Its next game at home is on Nov. 30 against the Buffalo Sabres.
In Arizona on Wednesday, Shanahan faced Babcock and gave him the difficult news. He said he felt it was only right, since he had been the person that hired him.
“It wasn’t an easy conversation to have,” Shanahan said. “It wasn’t pleasant. Days like today aren’t.”
In the end, he thanked Babcock for his efforts and cut him loose.
“We made a decision that we felt was in the best interest of the club,” Shanahan said.