Fire Sheldon Keefe? Let's Have Some Intelligent Discourse, For Once!

Dec 29, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe shouts instructions
Dec 29, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe shouts instructions / Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs should not fire their coach.

Sheldon Keefe is a perfectly fine NHL coach, and while I don't often agree with many of his decisions, firing him suggests that he is the Toronto Maple Leafs main problem.

Not even close.

You would have to be pretty lazy to look at this team and think the coach is the problem.

Fire Sheldon Keefe? Let's Have Some Intelligent Discourse, For Once!

I think that we can all agree that the only defendable reason - outside of behavioral issues - that you'd fire the coach you just signed to a contract extension, in the middle of a season in which you are somewhat comfortably in a playoff position, would be if you don't think he's getting enough out of the roster.

But to say that right now would fly in the face of all logic and evidence.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are 12th by points-percentage in the overall NHL standings, but they are 14th by Expected Goals Percentage. Therefore, Keefe is extracting more points out of the roster than they technically deserve. It's not a conclusive reason not to fire him, it's just point one in a series of arguments.

A second point in Keefe's defense is that the Leafs have the worst blue-line among competing teams, they've had a ton of injuries to that blue-line, and have been going through a worst-case goaltending scenario (Woll injury, Samsonov implosion, had to rely on Martin Jones).

The team is not meeting expectations, but have also had to use their 3rd string goalie in 35% of their games. I don't see how the coach can be faulted here.

Overtime Record and Close Games

17 out of 41 games have gone to overtime. Well over half their games have been decided by one goal (or one goal + some empty netters). This shows that they keep games close. You could look at this is a negative, but within the context of their injuries and roster deficiencies, I think it's a testament to the coach that the team gives themselves a chance to win most of the time.

Everyone complains about the Leafs penalty-killing, but the team, or at least the coach and players, should get a pass considering their goalie situation. I would guess that 100% of teams who are forced to split their goalie starts three-ways among a rookie, a guy in the midst of a total meltdown and a washed up 3rd stringer all have bad penalty killing.

Further to Keefe's credit, the Leafs are once again one of the teams getting the least amount of power-plays again this year. The ref's refusal to ever let the Leafs have a 2 man advantage is either a revolting example of a statistically impossible randomness coming to fruition, or a something much more insidious. I'd lean to the former, but who's to say? Either way, another point in Keefe's favour.

Then there is the fact that when the Leafs blue-line had half its players on the IR, the GM did nothing. When Samsonov was bad, and Woll was injured, the GM did not bring in a new goalie. Even dressing Samsonov the other day, the coach seemed to me to be at least implying that it wasn't his call.

The GM Has Been the Issue, Not the Coach

Last year, the Leafs had the deepest team in the NHL (find me another team scratching players as good as Bunting, Gustafsson and Liljegren in the playoffs) and they outplayed Florida and lost only because of a hot goalie. But this year's team? Not even close to the deepest in the NHL. How is this Keefe's fault, exactly?

The new GM, Brad Treliving, had a horrible summer. His big signing, Tyler Bertuzzi, has six goals and less than a half-point per game, despite playing exclusively with some of the best players alive. Max Domi and David Kampf created a situation where the coach can't possibly hope to balance out his lines because he has 2 x opposite one-dimensional centres in his bottom-six.

The David Kampf, Ryan Reaves and John Klingberg signings may be the three worst this franchise has ever seen.

You can't even credit Treliving's good signings to him because they are so fluky. Simon Benoit was the single worst player in the NHL last season. He's played well, but that was a hail mary if I ever saw one. As for Martin Jones, his play has been unreal, but when this happens you also have to deal with the inevitable regression. Martin Jones has not finished an NHL season with higher than a .900 save percentage in a half decade. The GM didn't make a smart decision to sign him, so much as he completely lucked out.

The Leafs could fire Keefe just to get that "new coach bump" but otherwise, what's the argument for change here? Keefe has a long history of success, and knows these players better than anyone. The lack of playoff success can't be pinned on him - if his best players ever scored at their regular season levels during the playoffs, he might already have a Stanley Cup. I don't think his coaching made Auston Matthews unable to score on Sergei Bobrovski (*just for example).

In conclusion, the blue-line, the poorly balanced roster, the bad UFA signings, the defensive injuries, the sub-par Mitch Marner, the goalie injuries/implosions, the ridiculous lack of power-play time, and the bad penalty killing can not be laid at Keefe's feet.

And, if anything, the fact that he's kept this team in the playoff picture, and forced almost half the games to overtime, really reflects well on him.

Next. The Leafs Blue-Line Needs an Elite Addition. The Leafs Blue-Line Needs an Elite Addition. dark

After a full analysis, I can't in good conscience recommend that the Toronto Maple Leafs make a coaching change. It would be a lazy, easy-answer and it would embarrass the organization. No coach could have done better with what Keefe has had to work with this season.