Who Should Be Behind the Toronto Maple Leafs Bench with Sheldon Keefe in 2020-21?

MONTREAL, QC - FEBRUARY 08: Assistant coach Paul McFarland (L) and head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs Sheldon Keefe (R) look on from behind the bench against the Montreal Canadiens during the second period at the Bell Centre on February 8, 2020 in Montreal, Canada. The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - FEBRUARY 08: Assistant coach Paul McFarland (L) and head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs Sheldon Keefe (R) look on from behind the bench against the Montreal Canadiens during the second period at the Bell Centre on February 8, 2020 in Montreal, Canada. The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs will have an interesting decision to make for next season.

When the shocking news broke of Paul McFarland leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2020-21 to coach the Kingston Frontenacs, Leafsnation immediately sprung into action, calling on the Leafs to hire several different coaches to ride shotgun next season with Sheldon Keefe.

While everyone is extremely grateful for the work McFarland has done in Toronto and wish him nothing but the best, Sheldon Keefe should move very quickly and be highly active filling his vacancy. There are many candidates that come to mind who could potentially replace McFarland, however, a few stick out above the rest.

Let’s examine the four candidates that should be in the running for Keefe’s assistants.

Bruce Boudreau

Boy would this be fun.

Self-noted Leaf fanatic and blue and white lover, Bruce Boudreau would be a fantastic addition behind the Leafs bench. His track record as a head coach in the NHL speaks for itself – winner of over 560 games, Jack Adams award recipient as coach of the year in 2008, and, in his 12 completed years of coaching, Boudreau has made the playoffs in 10 of those years never missing the dance in back to back years.

Having a veteran assistant coach working alongside a rookie head coach could only help with Keefe’s progression at the NHL level. Regardless of his teams’ underlying stats and percentages, Boudreau’s career accomplishments as well as his success as a motivator should be enough to hire him. If this video is not enough to persuade you alone then I do not know what will.

Nevertheless, Boudreau’s teams over the past four seasons, prior to this one, have posted extremely positive defensive stats and are proven to be analytical darlings. (stats courtesy of evolving-hockey.com)

2018 – 19: 1st in xGA/60, 10th in GA/60, 12th in GA, 7th in PK%.

2017 – 18: 1st in xGA/60, 8th in GA/60, 11th in GA, 13th in PK%.

2016 – 17: 1st in xGA/60, 13th in GA/60, 7th in GA, 8th in PK%.

2015 – 16: 6th in xGA/60, 11th in GA/60, 1st in GA, 1st in PK%.

Readers might be asking why I would mention Bruce Boudreau’s teams’ defensive numbers when there is a vacancy for the offensive assistant coach.

Very valid point, but I should mention Keefe did not have a say in hiring Paul McFarland or Dave Hakstol, the current assistant coaches – he inherited them from former coach Mike Babcock. I do believe with a full offseason together, Dubas and Keefe will work hand in hand to find the perfect associates for Keefe to work alongside with.

If the past four seasons preceding this one have proven one thing, it is Bruce Boudreau’s teams play in a hard-nosed, defensively responsible system. With Keefe’s emphasis on a free-flowing offensive scheme coupled with Boudreau’s rigorous and stingy defensive structure, the Toronto Maple Leafs could establish themselves as a league-leader at both ends of the ice.

One obstacle may be, due to Boudreau’s success as a head coach, a number of teams are going to be willing to offer him a head coach position which would entice him away from Toronto. But, if there is one coach who would choose an assistant position here over a head coaching job somewhere else, it would be a guy who talks about the Leafs like this.

Rob Davison

Rob Davison, assistant coach of the Toronto Marlies, has worked alongside Sheldon Keefe for the past three seasons before Keefe’s promotion. Developing an exceptional working relationship with each other, Davison has found success managing Keefe’s defensive arrangements and penalty kill.

While the AHL does not have the same level of advanced analytics like the NHL, there are still two stat categories we can look at to see Davison’s success with the Toronto Marlies – goals against and penalty kill percentage. During their Calder Cup run in 2018, the Marlies ranked 1st in goals against and 1st in penalty kill percentage, with Davison responsible for both.

It would be very interesting to see if the success Keefe had with his former assistant could possibly translate to the highest stage. For one, the parallels between the 2018 Marlies and this Toronto Maple Leafs team are quite remarkable. Both with extremely talented rosters and a high-octane offense, Davison’s familiarity with Keefe and Dubas may give him an edge above the rest of his competition.

Dave Hakstol

One option Dubas could consider is not replacing the current defensive assistant coach, Dave Hakstol, and letting him return for another season.

Keefe and Hakstol have developed a formidable working relationship with each other and under Toronto’s head coach, Hakstol has been given more freedom to implement his ideal systems.

Under Babcock, the former Flyers head coach guided Toronto to the 24th ranked goals-against per game. With the liberty to carry out his preferred defensive structure, Hakstol, under Keefe, improved Toronto’s goals-against per game to 17th league-wide.

Showing increased improvements, it is fair to wonder if a full offseason and training camp working with alongside each other could further limit this Leaf team’s defensive lapses. Having Hakstol behind the bench, a veteran of four seasons as an NHL head coach, is also going to aid Keefe and his development as a head coach at the NHL level, similar to Bruce Boudreau.

AJ MacLean

Alas, we have arrived at the one and only candidate to replace the actual assistant coach vacancy left by McFarland. There a few coaches Dubas could look at to take over to run the offense and manage the powerplay, however, none suit the Toronto Maple Leafs better than AJ MacLean.

On ice, over the past two seasons prior to this one, MacLean, along with Keefe, has led the Toronto Marlies to the 7th best powerplay and the 4th most goals-for.

Off ice, Keefe, MacLean, and Dubas have all built a fantastic professional relationship with each other, having worked in the same organization for the past seven years and finding success wherever they go.

It is hard to ignore the value Dubas has in familiarity and the importance of a previous working relationship in regards to building his franchise. It is no coincidence Dubas worked as Kyle Clifford’s agent or he had previously traded for Jack Campbell while GM of the Soo and acquired both via trade earlier this year.

Or at draft night, picking players from the Soo like Rasmus Sandin or Mac Hollowell. Or the fact he has hired his long-time running partner from the Soo and the Marlies to coach his NHL team.

Familiarity matters a ton to Dubas, and with MacLean, the Toronto Maple Leafs would be getting an old friend as well as someone with adept skill at running a potent offense and efficient powerplay.

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In the end, Kyle Dubas is definitely a new-age, modern-thinking GM. Valuing analytics and unconventional methods to build his team, Dubas is an outside the box problem-solver and it is entirely possible he elects to hire someone not on anyone’s’ radar.