Head coach Sheldon Keefe quickly impressed new Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving by being accountable for Toronto’s recent playoff failures.
Keefe signed a two-year contract extension with the Maple Leafs on Wednesday, keeping him as the team’s head coach until at least 2025. Treliving said that Keefe’s leadership skills made the new deal possible.
“Sheldon was really transparent and honest and accountable for what’s going on here,” said Treliving, who joined Toronto on May 31, almost two weeks after its second-round playoff exit. “I always think you have to first start with yourself and critique your own performance, which I think Sheldon has done.
“I look at what he does over the course of the summer in terms of connecting with our players, getting their feedback on certain things, also looking at ways that we can change.”
The 42-year-old Keefe was named Maple Leafs head coach on Nov. 20, 2019, taking over after Mike Babcock was fired following a 9-10-4 start to the season. Keefe has posted a 166-71-30 regular-season record since then, making the playoffs every year.
However, Toronto has yet to translate that success to the post-season.
The Maple Leafs beat Tampa Bay in six games in the first round of the 2022-23 playoffs, its first postseason series win since 2004. But Toronto went on to lose to the eighth-seeded Florida Panthers in the next round.
“The success this team has had in the regular season, it’d be safe to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to stay status quo,’” said Treliving in a video call with reporters. “But [Keefe is] exploring and pushing the envelope on ways that we can be better.”
Keefe first joined the Maple Leafs organization as head coach of the minor-league Toronto Marlies in June 2015. In parts of five seasons with the Marlies, Keefe led the club to a 199-89-22-9 record in 319 regular season games.
In that span, the Marlies won the franchise’s first ever Calder Cup championship in 2018, and they also won the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as AHL regular season champions on two occasions. The team made four consecutive playoff appearances with Keefe at the helm and posted a 38-21 post-season record.
“Coaching this team has been a great privilege, and I’m truly excited at the opportunity to continue building towards our ultimate goal,” said Keefe in a statement. “We have so many great players and people within our organization that I’m grateful to work with, and together our commitment to team success remains steadfast.”
Signing Keefe to an extension was another key piece of off-season business done for Treliving, who also inked star centre Auston Matthews to a four-year US$53-million extension last week.
“A lot of people may speculate that the reason [the Keefe deal is] done is the noise and the distractions,” said Treliving. “I think, as a manager, you’re always trying to eliminate distractions.
“But I want to be clear, this gets done because I really think we’ve got a good coach here and his record in the regular season has proved it.”
Treliving said Keefe’s contract extension was made after consultation with several of the Leafs players, tricky for a new general manager still getting to know his personnel.
“It’s not a popularity contest, but you can tell when a coach has had an impact on them and when they believe that the coach’s had an impact on their team. They get pushed,” said Treliving. “That was one of the things that came back to me really consistently from the players that it’s not they’re going to bat for their buddy, per se, as much as they believe that they’ve grown as a group.
“There’s uncomfortable times, at certain times, because he’s demanding and he expects a lot, he pushes these guys, but there’s a real trust factor from what I’ve gathered from the players.”
The Maple Leafs begin their preseason on Sept. 24 in Ottawa against the Senators. Toronto plays host the rival Montreal Canadiens in the regular-season opener on Oct. 11.