The Canadian Press
TORONTO–Brendan Shanahan had seen enough.
And since he helped bring Mike Babcock to Toronto in the spring of 2015, the president of the Maple Leafs felt it was only right he be there when the axe fell on his head coach.
Sitting uncomfortably outside the playoff picture, the scuffling Leafs fired Babcock yesterday and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe.
Shanahan flew to Arizona where Toronto–a team that started the season with Stanley Cup aspirations, but hasn’t come close to living up to those lofty expectations–is preparing to meet the Coyotes today to deliver the news alongside general manager Kyle Dubas.
“It wasn’t an easy conversation to have and it wasn’t pleasant,” Shanahan told reporters at the team’s hotel in suburban Scottsdale. “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.”
Babcock had a record of 9-10-4 in 2019-20 for the Leafs, who are 0-5-1 in their last six games, including five straight losses in regulation, and currently sit two points back of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Toronto fell 4-2 to the Golden Knights in Vegas on Tuesday after an embarrassing 6-1 defeat Saturday in Pittsburgh. Babcock, who has a career record of 700-418-183 and was coming off back-to-back 100-point campaigns with the Leafs, picked up his last victory Nov. 7.
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 Cup with Detroit in 2008 before helping Canada secure back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014.
After signing the richest coaching contract in NHL history–one worth US$50 million over eight years–Babcock got Toronto to the playoffs the last three seasons after the franchise bottomed out in 2015-16, but was unable to advance beyond the first round.
The 39-year-old Keefe, who has a long history with Dubas, was in his fifth season as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies.
Keefe, a former player set to make his NHL head coaching debut Thursday, was 199-89-31 with the Marlies and helped secure the franchise’s first Calder Cup championship in 2018.
The 31st coach in franchise history, Keefe worked with a number of current Leafs when they were with the minor-league Marlies.
Toronto’s last four in-season coach firings–Pat Burns, Ron Wilson, Randy Carlyle and now Babcock–all took place with the team on the road.
There were no other changes announced behind the bench yesterday, meaning assistants Dave Hakstol and Paul McFarland keep their jobs for now.
Shanahan, Dubas and Keefe are all scheduled to speak with the media today.
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, which never iced its full roster because of various injuries to key pieces, 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.
In fact, Toronto’s Big 4 forwards chewed up nearly half of the $81.5-million cap, leaving Dubas to try and fill in the roster around the edges with young players and discount veterans.
Jason Spezza–one of those bargain-bin finds–was scratched on opening night by Babcock.
The 36-year-old centre watched 10 of the Leafs’ first 20 games from the press box, but has dressed for the last three, scoring two of Toronto’s last three goals and picking up and assist on the other.
While it’s hard to argue 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.
Toronto’s lack of attention to detail in the defensive zone the last two seasons and sub-par special teams were both troubling aspects Babcock was unable to rectify, even after changing assistants this season.
The Leafs’ power play currently ranks 18th overall, while the penalty kill sits 27th.