National Newswatch

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 on Wednesday 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 on Thursday 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.

"It's just something that you watch and you've been monitoring for a while," Shanahan said of the decision. "Kyle and I are in constant communication. It really just came down to the last couple of weeks and it got to the point where we spoke in the last 48 hours.

"I just felt that it was something that needed to be done, and Kyle felt the same way."

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.

"Our relationship has grown," Keefe said of Dubas in May. "He really opened my eyes to how much there is to learn and how to look at things a little bit differently."

The 31st coach in franchise history, Keefe worked with a number of current Leafs when they were with the minor-league Marlies.

"Sheldon's earned it," Shanahan said. "He's had success basically everywhere he's coached."

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 Wednesday, meaning assistants Dave Hakstol and Paul McFarland keep their jobs for now.

Shanahan, Dubas and Keefe are all scheduled to speak with the media Thursday.

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.

"We're mistake-prone on defence, the attention to details aren't there," Shanahan said. "The explosive offence that our team was known for has been missing for a while.

"There's a lot of work for Sheldon to do and there's a lot of work for the players to do."

The young Leafs surprised many by making the playoffs in 2016-17 before falling to the Washington Capitals in six games. Babcock couldn't get Toronto past the Boston Bruins the last two springs, losing both series in seven games.

The 2019 matchup was especially frustrating given the Leafs — who finished seventh in the overall standings, but started on the road for the second straight April against third-place Boston — led 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 with a chance to close things out at home against their Atlantic Division rivals in Game 6.

Dubas declined to give Babcock a vote of confidence after that defeat, but Shanahan believed the pair had a good working relationship.

"There were changes made in the off-season and changes made to the coaching staff," he said. "The commitment that management had and the coaching staff had to starting the season and having success was 100 per cent pure and honest.

"It just didn't work out that way."

And for his part, Babcock knew back in September things could get dicey if the season started to go sideways.

"I do, for sure," he said at the start of training camp. "The expectation each and every year should be greater than the previous year if you're going in the right direction."

Now it's up to Keefe to grab the wheel.

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2019.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

The Canadian Press
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