Shanahan on firing Babcock, promoting Keefe: ‘Something that needed to be done’

Shanahan on firing Babcock, promoting Keefe: ‘Something that needed to be done’

TORONTO — Brendan Shanahan had seen enough.

And since he helped bring Mike Babcock to Toronto in the spring of 2015, the president of the Maple Leafs felt it was only right he be there when the axe fell on his head coach.

Sitting uncomfortably outside the playoff picture, the scuffling Leafs fired Babcock on Wednesday and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe.

Shanahan flew to Arizona where Toronto — a team that started the season with Stanley Cup aspirations, but hasn’t come close to living up to those lofty expectations — is preparing to meet the Coyotes on Thursday to deliver the news alongside general manager Kyle Dubas.

“It wasn’t an easy conversation to have and it wasn’t pleasant,” Shanahan told reporters at the team’s hotel in suburban Scottsdale. “But it was what we felt was important for the club.

“Once you realize there’s something you should do, and have to do, then it’s best to act.”

Babcock had a record of 9-10-4 in 2019-20 for the Leafs, who are 0-5-1 in their last six games, including five straight losses in regulation, and currently sit two points back of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

“It’s just something that you watch and you’ve been monitoring for a while,” Shanahan said of the decision. “Kyle and I are in constant communication. It really just came down to the last couple of weeks and it got to the point where we spoke in the last 48 hours.

“I just felt that it was something that needed to be done, and Kyle felt the same way.”

Toronto fell 4-2 to the Golden Knights in Vegas on Tuesday after an embarrassing 6-1 defeat Saturday in Pittsburgh. Babcock, who has a career record of 700-418-183, picked up his last victory for the Leafs on Nov. 7.

Hired as part of a massive rebuild, 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 Cup with Detroit in 2008 before helping Canada secure back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014.

After signing the richest coaching contract in NHL history — one worth US$50 million over eight years — Babcock got Toronto to the playoffs the last three seasons after the franchise bottomed out in 2015-16, but was unable to advance beyond the first round.

The 39-year-old Keefe, who has a long history with 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.”

Keefe has coached a number of current Leafs when they were with Marlies.

“Sheldon’s earned it,” Shanahan said. “He’s had success basically everywhere he’s coached.”

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. There were no other changes announced behind the bench, meaning assistants Dave Hakstol and Paul McFarland keep their jobs for now.

Shanahan, Dubas and Keefe are 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, which was never able to ice its full roster because of various injuries to key pieces, 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.

One of those bargain-bin finds — 36-year-old centre Jason Spezza — was scratched on opening night by Babcock, and has watched 10 of the Leafs’ 23 games from the press box.

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.

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 assistants this season.

The Leafs’ power play currently ranks 18th overall, while the penalty kill sits 27th.

“We’re mistake-prone on defence, the attention to details aren’t there,” Shanahan said. “The explosive offence that our team was known for has been missing for a while.

“There’s a lot of work for Sheldon to do and there’s a lot of work for the players to do.”

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 matchup 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.

Dubas declined to give Babcock a vote of confidence after that defeat, but Shanahan said the pair had a good working relationship.

“There were changes made in the off-season and changes made to the coaching staff,” he said. “The commitment that management had and the coaching staff had to starting the season and having success was 100 per cent pure and honest.

“It just didn’t work out that way.”

And for his part, Babcock knew back in September things could get dicey if the season started to go sideways.

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

Now it’s up to Keefe to grab the wheel.

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

Just Posted

The Red Deer Boxing Club has raised money to expand programming but still needs a larger space to operate in when it’s allowed to reopen. (Contributed photo).
Red Deer Boxing Club has obtained $70,000 in grants but is still seeking a larger space

Without expanded programming, the grants must be returned: manager

Red Deer city council gave final approval to a mask bylaw that will go into effect on Nov. 30. (Black Press file photo).
Red Deer city council approves mask bylaw that takes effect Monday

It could be ‘superceded’ by a provincial mask bylaw, if one is announced Tuesday

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, announced more than 1,500 active cases in Alberta Monday afternoon and five additional deaths. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
New COVID rules coming

Central zone active cases up by 100 in last 24 hours

(Black Press file photo.)
Rocky police charge three suspects after pellet gun shootings

Three incidents results in several injuries

Lynn Van Laar, chair of this year’s Christmas Wish Breakfast, said the event was planned outdoors to minimize the risk of COVID. Photo by Mamta Lulla/Advocate staff
Outdoor Christmas Wish Breakfast helps central Alberta families this holiday season

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t going to stop children from having a merry… Continue reading

Hockey Canada president and CEO Scott Smith speaks during a news conference in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. Hockey Canada announced Tuesday that two players at its nation junior selection camp have tested positive for COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Two players at Canada’s World Junior selection camp test positive for COVID-19

Canada’s World Junior selection camp in Red Deer came to a screeching… Continue reading

Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey (20) knocks a pass away from Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
Goff throws for 376 yards, 3 TDs in Rams’ 27-24 win vs Bucs

Goff throws for 376 yards, 3 TDs in Rams’ 27-24 win vs Bucs

New York Red Bulls midfielder Dru Yearwood, left, fights for the ball against Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio during an MLS soccer match in Harrison, N.J., on November 8, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Eduardo Munoz Alvarez
Experienced Toronto FC ready to take on upstart Nashville SC in playoff action

Experienced Toronto FC ready to take on upstart Nashville SC in playoff action

Canada's head coach Dave Lowry during practice at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland, on Wednesday, December 30, 2015. The Winnipeg Jets have hired Lowry as an assistant coach. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Former WHL head coach Dave Lowry joins Paul Maurice’s staff in Winnipeg

Former WHL head coach Dave Lowry joins Paul Maurice’s staff in Winnipeg

Felix Auger-Aliassime, of Canada, returns a shot to Dominic Thiem, of Austria, during the fourth round of the US Open tennis championships in New York on September 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Seth Wenig
A steady if unspectacular season comes to a close for Canada’s Auger-Aliassime

A steady if unspectacular season comes to a close for Canada’s Auger-Aliassime

Sacramento Kings' Alex Len (25) collects a rebound against Brooklyn Nets' Jarrett Allen (31) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Aug. 7, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Ashley Landis
Raptors continue to shore up frontcourt, signing Alex Len to one-year deal

Raptors continue to shore up frontcourt, signing Alex Len to one-year deal

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Freeland says Liberals will deliver economic, fiscal update on Nov. 30

Freeland says Liberals will deliver economic, fiscal update on Nov. 30

Canadian Joint Operations Commander Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau speaks during a news conference on the recent Canadian Forces helicopter crash, Tuesday, May 19, 2020 in Ottawa. The Canadian Armed Forces is preparing to formally apologize to victims of sexual misconduct. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canadian Armed Forces to formally apologize to victims for sexual misconduct

Canadian Armed Forces to formally apologize to victims for sexual misconduct

Most Read