Toronto Maple Leafs: Sheldon Keefe is a Head Coach

LAVAL, QC - DECEMBER 22: Head coach of the Toronto Marlies Sheldon Keefe looks on after a victory against the Laval Rocket during the AHL game at Place Bell on December 22, 2018 in Laval, Quebec, Canada. The Toronto Marlies defeated the Laval Rocket 2-0. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
LAVAL, QC - DECEMBER 22: Head coach of the Toronto Marlies Sheldon Keefe looks on after a victory against the Laval Rocket during the AHL game at Place Bell on December 22, 2018 in Laval, Quebec, Canada. The Toronto Marlies defeated the Laval Rocket 2-0. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs may be in the process of giving their coaching staff a sorely-needed offseason facelift, but it is unlikely that Sheldon Keefe will end up being a part of it.

The difference in responsibility between a head coach and their assistants is often understated in hockey discourse.

A head coach is the master of their domain in the most literal sense of the term. They oversee everything even remotely related to the team – from the minutiae of systems work, to lineup decisions, to a facet as seemingly ancillary as the practice schedule.

If the team is the body, the head coach is, well, the head. Hence; the name.

Assistants, on the other hand, handle duties which are much more specific. They typically oversee tasks such as the special teams configuration, along with dictating the mid-game usage of either positional group, and more or less acting as a conduit between the players and the head coach on both a personal and professional level.

Think of it this way: to a hockey player, the head coach is the dad, while the assistant is more like the fun uncle who takes you out for ice cream and listens to you complain about why your dad shouldn’t have grounded you.

Both are authority figures, both oversee important aspects of their team, but only one gets final say. And while an assistant may very well hold a different opinion than the head coach on any number of those aforementioned aspects, when all is said and done, the buck ultimately stops with the latter.

This is important to note in the wake of the Maple Leafs’ recent personnel shuffling. With DJ Smith and Jim Hiller having either left for greener pastures or been pushed out the door, with replacement powerplay specialist Paul McFarland arriving literal minutes after, Mike Babcock‘s staff now has a significant vacancy. A vacancy which many have suggested Sheldon Keefe could potentially fill.

This is unlikely. And the justification behind why I think that it won’t happen actually stems from the very reasons why many think that it should.

Let’s dive into them.


Arguably the most pressing force motivating fans into hopping aboard the “Keefe as Leafs Assistant” bandwagon is protection. Or that doing so would, therefore, make him unavailable to outside poachers.

It’s no secret that Keefe is a wanted man right now. In fact, he is perhaps the most coveted coaching prospect outside of the NHL today – thanks in large part to an AHL track record which includes, amongst other things, the most regular season wins and points of any coach throughout the 4 years that he’s spent in the league, along with one Calder Cup Championship, two MacGregor Kilpatrick trophies (awarded to the AHL’s first-place finisher), two Conference Final appearances, four second-round appearances, and one Conference Championship.

Keefe earned all of those accolades before the age of 39, acting as the guiding hand behind the Marlies’ unparallelled immediate success while, in addition, overseeing the developmental process of practically every young Maple Leaf not named Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner.

That success is bound to put any bench boss on an NHL radar, let alone one who happens to work inside the media fishbowl that is Toronto. It’s inevitable.

But just how realistic is the prospect of another NHL team snapping Keefe up this summer? Frankly, not very.

Look around. Of the five organizations who parted ways with their head coach at the end of the regular season, only one has yet to find a replacement, and that lone holdout is none other than the Edmonton Oilers. Yes, the same Edmonton Oilers who are about to have rifled through eight different coaches over the past ten seasons and who also possess what is arguably the most dysfunctional and toxic front office structure – even in the wake of Ken Holland‘s arrival – in the entire NHL.

What about that destination – aside from a gradually unravelling Connor McDavid – is appealing?

The fact of the matter is, Keefe has now entered a point in his career where he can more or less choose his next venture. He’s earned it, for lack of a better term, and is by all accounts in no rush to unwittingly thrust himself into a situation that does not appear conducive to both his own success, and to the team’s.

Funnily enough, “Conducive to Success” is not exactly a phrase commonly associated with Edmonton.

Even when looking at Keefe’s current situation, there are few factors that would seemingly push him to look for a change.

According to Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos, the 38-year-old actually signed a contract extension with the Maple Leafs this past year that not only will keep him with the Marlies for the foreseeable future, but reportedly make him “one of the AHL’s highest-paid coaches in history”, as well.

Money doesn’t seem to be an issue here. And while an NHL job would assuredly necessitate a raise, would the financial difference really be enough to outweigh the potential struggles that would await him in his new role?

In my opinion, no. It doesn’t.

Keefe is unquestionably at the top of his current field. He works within the very organization that happens to be run by Kyle Dubas – his closest professional colleague with whom he shares overarching ideologies and who also gave him a chance at both the OHL and AHL level – and is seen as the defacto replacement for Mike Babcock who, if you hadn’t heard, is on pretty thin ice.

Barring an unforeseen development, the threat of Keefe leaving Toronto for an outside opportunity is, at the moment, slim.


Sheldon Keefe has never been an assistant coach. Not during his OHL tenure with the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds, and not with the Toronto Marlies, either.

In fact, the closest Keefe has ever come to holding the position was back in 2005, when he unofficially “assisted” then-Head Coach and General Manager of the Central Canada Hockey League’s Pembroke Lumber Kings, Kevin Abrams, after the former purchased the team in 2003.

Shortly thereafter, Keefe took over as Lumber Kings Head Coach upon Abrams’ promotion to CCHL Commissioner in 2006.

This is a legitimate influence. While the Marlies do indeed operate as an extension of their parent club Maple Leafs, the degree of control which Keefe holds over the team’s overall makeup and operation is among the highest of any AHL coach.

The Sheldon Keefe Marlies play the way Sheldon Keefe wants them to.

Whereas Babcock’s Leafs rely almost entirely on stretch passes and a chip-and-chase approach when operating in either zone, Keefe’s Marlies opt for shorter outlet passes and controlled zone entries in transition instead. While Babcock attempts to split each power play opportunity as evenly as possible between his first and second units, Keefe alternatively keeps his intentionally loaded PP1 on the ice for roughly 1:30 of every 2-minute minor. And as Frederik Andersen continues to log upwards of 60 games per year under Babcock’s watch, Keefe strives to create more of a tandem approach in his crease, with no Marlies netminder having eclipsed the 43 starts Garret Sparks saw in 2017-18 since Keefe’s arrival. The list goes on.

Yes, Babcock and Keefe are different coaches. Such a notion is far from breaking news. But that doesn’t change the fact that Keefe thrives most when operating within a situation in which he ultimately calls the shots. It’s natural. And I’m sure that most with knowledge of the situation would say the same about Babcock, too.

Even in spite of the potential new ideas that Keefe’s presence would inject into a previously stubborn Maple Leafs bench, it would still be a situation that, in some way, withholds his value.

Keefe is not the fun uncle. Even when considering how the strides he has taken in the player relations department since joining the Marlies are notable and readily acknowledged by those who experienced them, Keefe has never been in the position of “good cop” before, and does not possess the motivational style that seems to suit it, either.

Known to readily surround himself with self-admitted “no-men” whenever forming his coaching staff, Keefe prefers to foster a wealth of opinion behind his bench. It’s a remarkably forward-thinking tactic in today’s climate of ever-shifting power structures, albeit one that comes accompanied by a caveat.

On the Marlies bench, Keefe is the one who others tell “no”. But on the Maple Leafs’ bench, however, the role Babcock’s “no-man” would inevitably fall to Keefe.

That is not an insignificant change. And for a coach whose entire career has been spent on the other end of that conversation, with a track record to suggest that he was overwhelmingly successful in doing so, leaving behind that assured control for an assistant job is not likely to be found at the top of Keefe’s priority list.

Especially when the prospect of hiring his own “no-men” could be one year away.

dark. Next. Sheldon Keefe's Masterpiece

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