Toronto Maple Leafs fire head coach Mike Babcock, promote Sheldon Keefe

Toronto Maple Leafs fire head coach Mike Babcock, promote Sheldon Keefe

Mike Babcock had a record of 9-10-4 in 2019-20 for the struggling Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs have fired head coach Mike Babcock and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe.

Babcock had a record of 9-10-4 in 2019-20 for the struggling Leafs, who are 0-5-1 in their last six games, including five straight losses in regulation.

“Mike has played an integral role in changing the direction of our franchise,” team president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement Wednesday. “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.

“We collectively felt that it was best to make a change to Sheldon Keefe.”

Toronto, which currently sits two points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, fell 4-2 to the Golden Knights in Vegas on Tuesday. Babcock’s last win for the Leafs, on Nov. 7 against Vegas, was the 700th of his NHL career.

He has a career record of 700-418-19 with Toronto, Detroit and Anaheim.

Hired as part of a massive rebuild in the spring of 2015, 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 Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008 and back-to-back Olympic gold medals with Canada in 2010 and 2014.

After signing the richest coaching contract in NHL history at US$50 million over eight years, Babcock got Toronto to the playoffs the last three seasons, but was unable to advance beyond the first round.

The 39-year-old Keefe, who has a long history with Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, was in his fifth season as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies.

Keefe 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.”

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.

Shanahan was scheduled to meet with reporters later Wednesday in Glendale, Ariz., where the Leafs are set to take on Coyotes on Thursday. Shanahan, Dubas and Keefe were all scheduled to speak with the media Thursday morning.

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 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.

The young Leafs surprised many by making the playoffs in 2016-17 before falling to the Washington Capitals in six games. Babcock was unable to get Toronto past the Boston Bruins the last two springs, losing both series in seven games.

The 2019 series was especially frustrating given that the Leafs led 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 with a chance to close things out at home in Game 6 before the Bruins fought back to win two straight.

Ottawa head coach D.J. Smith, who spent the last four years as an assistant on Babcock’s staff in Toronto, praised the professionalism of his former boss.

“He gave me my chance in the National Hockey League,” Smith said Wednesday in Montreal before the Senators faced the Canadiens. ”He showed me the NHL and he did a great job every day. It’s a tough time for him and his family.

“I certainly feel for him.”

While there’s no questioning 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.

Driving by data and analytics, Dubas focused on skill and speed — basically trying to win with four first lines — rather than the grinding type of player Babcock had previously preferred in his bottom-6 forward group.

Toronto’s lack of attention to detail in the defensive zone the last two seasons and sub-par specialty teams were both troubling aspects Babcock was unable to rectify, even after changing assistant coaches this season.

Backup goalie was also a constant headache after the Leafs lost veteran Curtis McElhinney on waivers before the start of the 2018-19 campaign. Garret Sparks never gained Babcock’s trust, while Michael Hutchinson secured just one point in five starts before getting demoted to the AHL.

Before the season, Dubas was asked about his relationship with Babcock, who was heavily criticized for his deployment of Matthews in Game 7 of Toronto’s first-round playoff exit last spring.

“We talk a lot,” Dubas said at the start of training camp. “We disagree, as any coach and GM do a lot. We agree on a lot of things and we work through it all. The key is, on areas that you disagree, that you respect one another and you work through all that.”

“We communicate all the time,” Babcock added in September. “We don’t agree all the time. I’ve enjoyed it. We’re excited about our opportunity.”

Babcock also knew he’d be on the hot seat if things went sideways.

“I do, for sure,” Babcock said. “The expectation each and every year should be greater than the previous year if you’re going in the right direction.”

ALSO READ: Leafs fan, 11, gets massive Twitter response to disappointing birthday

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, updates British Columbians about COVID-19 at a press conference earlier this week. (B.C. Government image)
B.C.’s 1st case of COVID-19 confirmed a year ago today

Here’s a look at some of the key dates in the province’s fight against the novel coronavirus

Elsie Hellstrom (top left), Mary Gjernes (top right), Stan Moore (bottom left) and Evelina Walter all celebrated their birthdays this month. All photos courtesy of Brittany Siemens.
Mission seniors residence celebrates 4 centenarian birthdays this month

Special party honouring a combined 405 years of life held on Jan. 25

A Chilliwack driver’s vehicle was impounded for seven days after an excessive speeding violation. (RCMP photo)
RCMP catch Chilliwack driver doing 60 km/h over posted speed limit

The motorist was hit with a big ticket and a seven day vehicle impoundment

Abbotsford Police is investigating after bullet casings were found following a shots fired call at the intersection of Purcell Avenue and Wells Gray Avenue on Tuesday night. (File photo)
Bullet casings found after shots-fired call in Abbotsford on Tuesday

Abbotsford Police Department seeking witnesses and CCTV footage following shooting

UFV assistant kinesiology professor Dr. Iris Lesser exercises along Chilliwack's Vedder Rotary Trail with her daughter Kaia. (UFV photo)
UFV study finds women with reduced physical activity had more mental health struggles during COVID pandemic

The study suggested women suffered more than men as gyms, parks and playgrounds shut down

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addresses the media during a news conference at the BC Centre of Disease Control in Vancouver B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
B.C. announces 485 new COVID-19 cases, fewest deaths in months

‘The actions we take may seem small, but will have a big impact to stop the virus,” urges Dr. Henry

Grad student Marisa Harrington and her supervisor Lynneth Stuart-Hill say preliminary results from a study into the affects of stress on hospital nurses show an impact on sleep and heart variability. (Courtesy of Marisa Harrington)
University of Victoria study shows stress impact on B.C. nurses

Stress may be impacting sleep, heart health of hospital nurses in Victoria region

Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
Search called off for small plane that went down in rough water south of Victoria

Plane bound for Port Angeles from Alaska believed to have one occupant, an Alaskan pilot

BC Place Stadium in a photo posted to cisc-icca.ca.
Roof of BC Place a stage for performers during online music festival

‘This will be the first time any artists have performed from the 204-foot iconic Vancouver rooftop’

Royal B.C. Museum conservator Megan Doxsey-Whitfield kneels next to a carved stone pillar believed to have significance as a First Nations cultural marker by local Indigenous people. The pillar was discovered on the beach at Dallas Road last summer. Museum curatorial staff have been working with Songhees and Esquimalt Nation representatives to gain a clearer picture of its use. (Photo courtesy Royal BC Museum)
Stone carving found on Victoria beach confirmed Indigenous ritual pillar

Discussion underway with the Esquimalt and Songhees about suitable final home for the artifact

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Driver crashes vehicle twice in one day near Princeton

Abbotsford woman, 29, wasn’t injured in either incident

Former Vancouver Giants forward Evander Kane is seen here in Game 7 of the second round of the 2009 WHL playoffs against the Spokane Chiefs (Sam Chan under Wikipedia Commons licence)
Gambling debts revealed in details of bankruptcy filing by hockey star Evander Kane

Sharks left winger and former Vancouver Giants player owes close to $30 million total

Othman “Adam” Hamdan, pictured in front of Christina Lake’s Welcome Centre, was acquitted of terrorism related charges in 2017. He has been living in Christina Lake since November 2020. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Man acquitted on terrorism charges awaits deportation trial while living in Kootenays

Othman Ayed Hamdan said he wants to lead a normal life while he works on his upcoming book

B.C. Premier John Horgan wears a protective face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 prior to being sworn in by The Honourable Janet Austin, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia during a virtual swearing in ceremony in Victoria, Thursday, November 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Premier Horgan calls jumping COVID vaccine queue ‘un-Canadian’

Horgan says most people in B.C. are doing their best to follow current public health guidelines

Most Read