You can come up with a hundred or so reasons why Sheldon Cave, who has won 54 games and 115 points this year, deserves to be back behind the bench with the Toronto Maple Leafs next season.
But there is a very important reason for his departure, too.
It’s not Barry Trotz.
This really is. Sometimes firing a head coach has nothing to do with the coach’s record and the type of work he or she has done for you. Instead, it’s more about whether there’s a better person out there. With Trotz available – and several teams reportedly already lining up for his services – Keefe’s job is suddenly much less secure than it was before the Leafs lost in Game 7 to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.
See, something has to change with The Leafs off-season. You can’t fail the first round of playoffs for the sixth year in a row and not expect to turn heads. But you also can’t make a change for the sake of change. Or change something against the background of making things much worse than they are now.
Now that we’ve ruled out a trade away from William Nylander, it’s time to take a look at why Keefe is leaving. Again, it’s not so much about Keefe as it is about the man who might take his place.
In Trotz, who were recently fired by the New York Islanders after missing the playoffs for the first time in four years, you have a head coach who has not only won the Stanley Cup but a Washington team that looks a lot like Toronto now does over the hump. Turn the capitals of chokers into heroes. Alex Ovechkin took the first attack sniper to become the team’s first winner. Then he did something even more remarkable, he escorted a group of Long Island nobles to back-to-back conference finals.
Trotz, as a chronically superior, has won 12 innings in the past seven years. That’s 12 more than Keefe and Mike Babcock collected over the same period.
Simply put, for a team that needs to make a change – but doesn’t want to alter the core of what made them so successful in the regular season – it will be all Toronto are looking for.
That’s if Vegas doesn’t harvest it first.
This is the issue now. It’s clear that Vegas, who sacked Peter Debore on Monday, wants Trotz to take over as their coach. The same goes for Winnipeg, Philadelphia, Detroit and any of the teams that do not currently have a coach. it is good. Its availability is also that rare.
This isn’t moving from Keefe in favor of recycled refurbishers like DeBoer, Paul Maurice or Alain Vigneault. This is not change for the sake of change. This is a position upgrade that won’t cost you anything under your cap or instant regret, like letting Jack Campbell walk away as a free agent.
This is also gaining a need that doesn’t come around very often.
The last time Trotz was unemployed, after quitting Washington over a contract dispute after winning a cup in 2018, it only took three days before he found his next job. In the time before that, he had only spent a month without work.
This means that the Leafs will have to act quickly if they are to acquire Trotz, which offers more than just a different sound.
I had the opportunity to. He’s had three chances to get leaves above the first-round hump. Every time it fails. And while this previous series was essentially settled on a banknote, it must be valued throughout his time in Toronto.
In the first year, Toronto was outplayed against the Columbus team that didn’t make until after the season due to the new format. In the second year, the Leafs squandered a 3-1 lead against the barely-released Montreal Canadiens. This year, Keefe led the Leafs to their best record in franchise history. And while he faced his defense twice, the results were similar.
Keefe, who may not have been trained, still couldn’t get past the foliage over the hump. They can’t get them to finish a streak in Game 6 or Game 7. They can’t bring out that killer instinct.
And then there were errors. Keefe should not have played with Kyle Clifford and Wayne Symonds before Jason Spitza in games 1 and 2. His decision to start Justin Hall in Match 4 cost the Leafs that match. But what he didn’t do, unless he tried, could have resulted in an extra goal or another win.
When the team’s back was on the wall, it was Spezza – not Keefe – who delivered the spirited speech.
There was no creativity. Keefe refused to split Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. He never got along with TJ Brodie with his former Flames defending partner Mark Giordano. He didn’t do what Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft did with Conor McDavid in Game 7 and played Matthews.
Now, after outperforming the lightning 3-2, he struck three times. In baseball parlance, he’s on the next hitter.
It didn’t matter whether they had overcome lightning or deserved a better fate. You can’t come back next season with the same general manager, same coach, and the same starting group that failed to get the job done.
The Leafs need to make a change. The easiest seems to be to change the volume behind the seat.