By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Atlantic Division got its first shake-up of the 2019-20 season on Wednesday, as the struggling Maple Leafs officially parted ways with head coach Mike Babcock after four seasons and change on the job.
“Today, we made the decision to relieve Mike Babcock of his coaching duties and named Sheldon Keefe our new head coach,” said Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. “Over parts of the last five seasons, Mike has played an integral role in changing the direction of our franchise. Mike’s commitment and tireless work ethic has put our organization in a better place and we are extremely grateful and appreciative of the foundation he has helped us build here.”
“At this time, we collectively felt that it was best to make a change to Sheldon Keefe,” Shanahan continued. “Sheldon’s record with the Marlies in terms of development and on-ice success during his time in our organization has compelled us all to feel that he is the right person to take us to the next stage in our evolution.”
Signed to a record eight-year, $50 million contract in 2015, the Maple Leafs went 173-133-45 under Babcock, but failed to advance beyond the first round in their three playoff runs with Babcock behind the bench, falling to Capitals in 2017 and then suffering back-to-back Game 7 defeats at the hands of the Bruins in 2018 and 2019.
This year has been rock bottom for the Babcock Era, too, as the Leafs had wins in just nine of 23 games out of the gate this season, and saw their losing streak extend to six games with Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Golden Knights. That loss to Vegas came after Babcock responded to critics calling for his job that he would always bet on Mike Babcock.
Babcock and the Leafs experienced this failure to live up to expectations while also building what appeared to be a super-roster up front with the drafting of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and free agent addition of John Tavares.
But the Toronto defense remained a total mess throughout Babcock’s tenure (it’s arguably never been worse), even with the recent additions of Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie, and Cody Ceci. The Maple Leafs are also in cap hell, with $40 million tied up four forwards, and there’s no easy way out for general manager Kyle Dubas.
With Babcock gone, the Leafs have promoted Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe from the AHL to the NHL. The 39-year-old Keefe has coached the Leafs’ AHL affiliate since the 2015 season, and won a Calder Cup in 2018.
The Bruins will get their first look at the Keefe-coached Leafs on Mar. 14, 2020.