Nothing is official, but all signs point to Sheldon Keefe signed a two-year extension to complete the 2023-24 NHL season as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Keefe was entering the final season of his initial contract with Toronto after taking over from Mike Babcock in November 2019.
To some, this may seem like a questionable decision on the part of the management, or perhaps more specifically the superiors who are surely watching this season with an intensely critical eye. Right or wrong, this season has been touted, at least to a select few, as a breakthrough campaign. On the surface, investing more time and energy in one of the most influential members of the organization in terms of impact on success or failure seems to belie this narrative.
But the decision to extend Keefe makes a lot of sense for several reasons – most of which outweigh the risk to a sports team with financial might like the Maple Leafs, who pay an excused asset a salary.
First, the Leafs are wise to eliminate any potential distractions this season, especially around the head coach. After exiting the first round after exiting the first round, the situation demands that everyone’s time and energy be funneled into pulling the same lever, and this is much easier to accomplish, especially for a coach- chief, when there are assurances in place.
Perhaps more important than that, it’s entirely possible that the desperate conditions for some this season may not apply to Keefe.
The connection is evident between Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas and Keefe, who the former recruited into the organization after the two first linked up with Sault Ste. Marie in the Ontario Hockey League. Keefe became not so secretly Dubas’ favorite choice, and the GM put his cards on the table when he felt he had reason to fire Babcock, raising Keefe from the Toronto Marlies.
By the nature of the decision – and the business – one might infer that Dubas is, in many ways, inextricably linked with Keefe. On the flip side, it’s possible that Keefe could break free from those bonds just through performance – although playoff success has eluded him so far.
Keefe has arguably outclassed Dubas since he was hired, earning applause and confidence in other corners of the organization for his performance as a coach. He helped save the team from the Babcock rift in 2019-20, leading a 27-15-5 record on the home stretch. He went on to dramatically improve that mark in his first full season (ish) in charge, overseeing a dominant 35-win and divisional title season in last year’s shortened 56-game campaign.
All of this equates to an overall record of 69-29-12 and a winning percentage of .660 in conditions that would be considered less than ideal.
Keefe owns some of last season’s playoff disappointment, no doubt. But two things beyond his control – roster building and star player performance – seem to be the determining factors that weigh the most at this point.
For this reason, attention is first elsewhere.
It must be said, however, that just as quickly as Keefe gained support, he could be lost. After five seasons of bitter disappointment in the first round and milestones in a much tougher division in 2021-2022, the pervasive pressure within the organization could easily change.
Keefe’s extension provides short-term financial security, not job security. If he doesn’t live up to his end of the bargain, he won’t be safe from the line of fire if the organization is forced to reassess after suffering a similar fate.
It will only allow Keefe to focus on the present, which is all that really matters.
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