Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe recently signed a two-year contract extension. Now, instead of his contract expiring after the 2021-22 season, he’s extended through the end of the 2023-24 season. Keefe’s 62-29-12 record is the best record in Maple Leafs’ history for any coach who’s hit the 100-game mark, and it’s come in the middle of a really odd time with every NHL team feeling the impact of a global pandemic.
Nothing’s been easy for Keefe, who hasn’t yet had a full or regular season to prepare for the team he wants to ice.
Maple Leafs’ fans know too well that Keefe’s regular-season record is stellar; however, so far in two tries with this team, he hasn’t been able to push his team past the first round of either of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In fact, just because Keefe is signed for two more seasons doesn’t mean he’ll stay. It only means that the Maple Leafs will pay him until 2024 even if he fails to reach the organization’s desired goals.
In recent Maple Leafs’ history, that’s happened before. Ron Wilson signed a contract extension in 2011 on Christmas Day, but he lasted only 68 days before he was tossed. In 2014, Randy Carlyle signed a two-year contract extension and was dumped 40 days later.
Keefe Has a Single Job this Season
As a coach, Keefe has a single mission. He needs to win during the playoffs. And that’s one question that is hugely important for his continued tenure. After last season, the front office worked hard to replace the departed Zach Hyman with a committee of possibilities. Frederik Andersen left, and Petr Mrazek came. Zach Bogosian has been replaced from the inside.
The other holes have been filled, and the regular season will show how well.
Now the question is whether Keefe can incorporate the new players the front office has brought in to build this season’s team in a way that is both successful in the regular season but also has legs – goes a long way – during the postseason. And, to hear Keefe speak about this year’s team, you have a feeling he’s happy enough with what he has.
In fact, after last night’s preseason 6-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens, Keefe went on record as saying how much the depth on this season’s team is far improved than during previous seasons.
The Maple Leafs New Additions
The news additions to the team include Michael Bunting, David Kampf, Nick Ritchie, and Ondrej Kase. These players add, at least in theory, a stronger presence in front of the net and additional scoring options. Now, it’s up to Keefe to create a viable mix that blends these players with the strong offense that was already present in forwards like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Willam Nylander, and John Tavares.
As noted before, the team has lost Zach Hyman, but has tried to replace his unique skills and drive; however, they’ve tried to do it by committee.
The team’s defense will likely miss the size and physicality of Zach Bogosian; however, the core of that much-improved defense remains with Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin, Justin Holl, and newcomers Rasmus Sandin and/or Timothy Liljegren, and Travis Dermott.
Instead of entering the season with a starter – in the past, Frederik Andersen – whose job was to play most of the games, Andersen is now gone. In his place are goalies 1A Jack Campbell and 1B Petr Mrazek. Their job is to share the net more equally and cover for each other if there’s an injury.
Can Keefe Create the Puck Possession Team He Desires
Can Keefe create a team that builds upon his penchant for puck possession and moves it towards a team that not only wins during the regular season but has the strength and characteristics of a team that can also win during the postseason? That’s the dilemma Keefe faces this season.
The defense has to remain solid. The scoring has to continue to work both during the regular season and during the more tight-checking postseason. The special teams have to improve. Last season’s powerplay had become all too predictable and needed to improve. The goalie play must remain solid. And, finally, the team cannot fade down the stretch and during the postseason.
Toronto does not have what can be called a gentle fan base, and the team’s free lunch has ended – if it ever existed. As a result, here the Maple Leafs are, entering the regular season and hopefully the postseason.
Keefe has a lot to prove. Can he do it? The Maple Leafs’ fans are tired of a losing team when it counts.
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