Brendan Shanahan

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

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The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

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As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

MORE:
Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?
Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Maple Leafs extend Shanahan’s contract through 2024-25

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The Toronto Maple Leafs announced an important contract extension on Tuesday, but no, it’s not for Mitch Marner.

Instead, it’s for the man behind the plan to bring in players like Marner. The Maple Leafs handed Brendan Shanahan a six-year extension as team president (and alternate governor), which means that extension runs through 2024-25.

It’s easy to get lost in the particulars of the contract squabbles involving Marner and William Nylander, and two straight postseason defeats to the Boston Bruins, and forget that the Maple Leafs have come a long way since bringing in Shanahan in April 2014. The team’s press release does a nice job of quickly summarizing that success:

The 50-year-old native of Mimico, Ontario first joined the club in April 2014. Since then, the Maple Leafs have earned three consecutive playoff berths (2016-17 through to 2018-19), while recording their most points in a single season (105 in 2017-18) and consecutive 100-point seasons (2017-18 and 2018-19) for the first time in franchise history.

The “Shanaplan” involved bringing in Mike Babcock as head coach and convincing Lou Lamoriello to come aboard, and then eventually pass the torch as GM to Kyle Dubas. During that time, the Maple Leafs have made some significant moves, most notably landing John Tavares in free agency.

Of course, the biggest tests lie ahead.

The Maple Leafs must solve the riddle of the Marner contract situation, and the salary cap crunch that is likely to result. Who will they trade to make room for the bigger names, or will this situation demand that the Maple Leafs trade a big name to make it work? Dubas likely carries the heaviest burden in making all of that work, but Shanahan’s almost certain to have some say, even if it’s more of a big picture outlook.

Dubas did what he could to squash rumblings about Babcock’s future, explaining that the Maple Leafs “are all in on Mike, and Mike is all in on us.” Still, the perception is out there that the head coach and GM diverge on some key matters when it comes to running a hockey team, and those rumblings will grow louder during every inevitable rough patch in 2019-20, and possibly beyond.

[Babcock did what he could to clear the air during a volatile time in March.]

Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe also hovers in the background, in part because he might buy into Dubas’ vision more than Babcock, but also because other NHL teams might try to snatch him up as their next head coach.

So, basically, Shanahan faces difficult challenges both on the ice with cap management and behind the scenes with managing people. This has largely been a success when it comes to rebuilding a lump of clay (or worse) into a consistent playoff team, yet it’s arguably even more difficult to make the leap from “good” to “great.”

There could be many more growing pains along the way, but overall, it’s easy to see why the Maple Leafs have so much faith in Shanahan, and the Shanaplan.

(We might be getting to the point where it’s time to retire Shanaplan, though, as great as that word splice is.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Full autonomy: Lamoriello’s place in Leafs’ chain of command

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How would a front office that once pondered not naming a GM at all handle the addition of an executive who’s accustomed to wielding Zeus-like control?

When the shock of the Toronto Maple Leafs naming Lou Lamoriello as their new general manager wore off, people began wondering how, exactly, everything would work. It seems simple enough, though: Lamoriello will wield the typical stopping power of a GM, answering only to Brendan Shanahan, as TSN noted from his presser:

“That’s what I’m told,” Lamoriello said. “I report to Brendan. And the other people report to me.”

While Lamoriello noted that he’s “not going to be here for a lifetime,” the 72-year-old’s three-year contract is at least part of the argument against this being a transitional hire (with young assistant GM Kyle Dubas potentially taking the reins).

Instead, it sounds the future of that executive position is quite open-ended:

It’s truly been a drastic couple of years of changes with Shanahan in charge, as the team replaced Randy Carlyle with Mike Babcock, Dave Nonis with Lamoriello, seemed to do a 180 on analytics and even traded Phil Kessel.

As much as executives preach patience, it’s tough to shake the feeling that the drama’s just starting.

Here’s video of the press conference:

Shanahan on Kessel: ‘There’s been a lot of interest’

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Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan admitted on Thursday that there has been significant interest on the availability of winger Phil Kessel, but on the eve of the NHL Draft, there’s no concrete offer on the table.

“He’s probably garnered the most interest. He’s probably the player that’s gotten the most phone calls,” Shanahan said on Thursday in Florida. “I think there’s some competition out there amongst teams that want him, that want other players of ours, and we might keep him. We’re not really committing to anything one way or another right now.

“We have time on our side. We don’t feel we have to do anything knee-jerk on some self-imposed or outer-imposed deadline.”

Reports have suggested the Pittsburgh Penguins are amongst the teams interested in the 27-year-old’s services.

Kessel has a list of eight teams he’s willing to waive his no-trade clause for, and according to Shanahan trade talks have not progressed to the point of contacting the player.

“Until we have a deal, there’s no point involving any players,” he said. “It’s mostly, up until now, just been talk and progression of talk. I don’t think we’ve been at a point where there’s a definitive offer out there, but there’s been some really encouraging conversations that have started weeks ago and have grown and are continuing to grow.”

Kessel’s eight-year, $64 million deal carries an $8 million cap hit for the next seven seasons.

By his standards Kessel had an off year in 2014-15.

He scored 25 goals and 61 points in 82 games and finished with a minus-34 rating. It was his lowest goal total in an 82-game season since 2007-08 (his second year in the league).

“When you have a guy like that, who is such a natural goal-scorer in the prime of his career, everybody wants goal-scoring,” said Shanahan. “Obviously in a cap world it’s not as easy for everybody to fit that player in as there used to be in the old days. But he’s a great player and a great goal-scorer; great finisher so there’s been a lot of interest.”

Related: Report: Leafs would take a contract back in a Kessel trade

No GM, no problem for the Maple Leafs?

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People can get pretty obsessed with job titles in sports, especially in a city where blame and attention are in such large supply as they are in Toronto.

Maple Leafs executive Brendan Shanahan is restructuring the team to the beat of his own drum, though, it seems … and apparently naming an official general manager really isn’t a big deal right now. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston passes along this intriguing bit from Shanahan on Tuesday:

A gut reaction is that this is a serious nod of approval for assistant GM Kyle Dubas, especially just days after HNIC’s Elliotte Friedman reported that trade calls are going through the young executive:

The Maple Leafs sent out a communiqué last week indicating any team wanting to talk trade should go through assistant GM Kyle Dubas. This led to speculation maybe Dubas would be elevated to the full-time GM position, but that appears premature. Director of player personnel Mark Hunter is responsible for draft selections, so it doesn’t look like Toronto wanted to add another 72-ounce Lone Star steak to his plate. What it does say, though, is Brendan Shanahan really trusts Dubas. That’s big responsibility at this time in the franchise’s existence.

As you can see from that excerpt, Dubas isn’t controlling every facet of roster-building, as Hunter seemingly runs the draft show.

Maybe it really means that, for the time being, the Leafs boast a GM-by-committee approach?

Along with Dubas and Hunter, Shanahan likely holds significant sway (possibly the most). Even so, deep-pocketed new head coach Mike Babcock probably has some serious input into the makeup of the team, too. One can picture any number of ways the Maple Leafs may make decisions, and compartmentalizing them could very well allow people to play to their strengths.

One thing seems clear: this franchise is advancing well beyond the days when they seemingly didn’t spend a penny on analytics.

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Speaking of spending money and doing things a GM might do, the Maple Leafs made it official that they’ve signed Petter Granberg and Tim Erixon to one-year deals while Zach Hyman received a two-year, two-way contract.