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Maple Leafs Coaching Change: Why a Cynic Should Doubt This New Direction

The Toronto Maple Leafs may get an early boost out of a coaching change, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for this roster as is.

As the Toronto Maple Leafs seem to be edging closer to signing either Todd McLellan or Craig Berube as their new head coach, questions should arise about the wisdom of the organization’s decision-making process. McLellan and Berube, both available after being fired from their previous coaching positions due to perceived failures, raise concerns about the team’s strategy and the potential repetition of past mistakes.

The famous adage often attributed to Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” comes to mind. In this case, are the Maple Leafs inadvertently falling into this trap by considering coaches recently facing setbacks in their coaching careers?

There’s no question that McLellan and Berube have experienced relative success in the NHL, but so had ex-Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. As Keefe did, McLellan boasts an impressive regular-season points percentage. However, unlike Keefe, Berube led the St. Louis Blues to a Stanley Cup victory in 2019. Nevertheless, their recent departures from their respective teams suggest shortcomings that led to their dismissals.

Maple Leafs GM Brad Treliving Wants the Team to Hear a New Voice

When Maple Leafs GM Brad Treliving reluctantly fired Keefe, his rationale was that the team needed to hear a new voice as a coach. He pointed to the need for a fresh perspective and approach to coaching. Deconstructing this “new-voice” statement suggests several underlying implications:

First, Keefe’s Voice Had Stagnated and Become Too Routine:

Treliving seemed to feel that the team had become stagnant or stuck in a routine under Keefe’s coaching. There was a belief Keefe wanted to get his stars and players to do certain things they simply weren’t willing to do.

A new voice represents an opportunity to break free from old habits, shake up the status quo, and inject new energy and ideas into the team.

Second, a New Coach Would Bring Fresh Ideas and Innovation:

The need for a new voice suggests a desire for innovation and creativity in coaching strategies. Treliving believes the team needs a coach who can introduce innovative tactics, systems, and approaches to the game. New approaches would give the Maple Leafs a competitive edge.

Did Keefe fall back on habits too often? He was criticized for keeping the same players together, calling out certain guys publicly, or favoring certain individuals.

Todd McLellan Craig Berube Maple Leafs coaching

Third, a New Coach Would Spell Increased Player Engagement and Motivation:

Changing the coach’s voice would rekindle player engagement and motivation. Over time, he believed the players grew accustomed to Keefe’s coaching style or message. They had become complacent and disengaged. A new coaching voice would reignite player enthusiasm, challenge them in new ways, and inspire them to reach heights like Stanley Cup success.

Fourth, a New Voice Would Author More Accountability and Higher Expectations:

Treliving’s statement reflected the organization’s desire to reinforce accountability and reset expectations within the team. A new coach would establish new standards, hold players more accountable for their performance, and create a culture of accountability that would drive success.

Depending on the style of coach hired, it could be a clear message to the players that management has hunted a personality type that is there to enforce new rules and expectations.

Finally, a New Voice Would Create a New Team Culture and Dynamics:

Changing the coaching voice would have profound implications for team culture and dynamics. Each new coach brings a new personality, leadership style, and new values to the role—these promise to reshape the dynamics within the locker room and foster a cohesive and unified team culture.

Overall, Treliving’s comment upon firing Keefe asserted that the team needed a revitalized performance and culture, which could only be constructed by bringing in a fresh leadership perspective. Did the Maple Leafs locker room become a boys club? Were people far too comfortable for them to ever win when things got tough?

The Cynical View of NHL Coaching Changes

From a cynical perspective, hiring new coaches in professional sports seems like a never-ending cycle of change for the sake of change. Each new coach arrives with promises of revitalization and transformation and eventually succumbs to the same pressures, expectations, and pitfalls that befell the previous coach.

As a result, hiring a new coach becomes less about genuine improvement and more about appeasing fans, placating ownership, or deflecting blame when things inevitably go awry. In the Maple Leafs case, Keefe’s firing was penance for the failed idea that a core (the Core Four) of elite players could bring the team a Stanley Cup. Because the organization knew the fanbase would not be on board for running the same idea back again, something had to be done. In this case, the first move was that Keefe had to be gone.

Matthews yells at Marner
Matthews yells at Marner

Yet, the “need for a new voice” will become a cycle perpetuating as the music begins once again for the team to engage in this perpetual game of musical chairs, shuffling coaches in and out. The counterargument is that this new-voice philosophy has little regard for the long-term stability or success of the franchise.

Furthermore, the constant turnover of coaches undermines player efficacy. Instead of growing their leadership roles as part of the team’s full leadership group, confidence and stability within the organization become the coach’s job. Players are seen as needing new leadership instead of growing their own. Ultimately, they become less powerful and then victims of the organization’s behest. They also grow disillusioned with the revolving door of leadership, leading to a lack of trust, cohesion, and commitment to the team’s long-term vision.

From this cynical perspective, hiring new coaches becomes less about genuine innovation and more about maintaining the illusion of progress. It also masks accountability for systemic issues within the organization. A cynic would see it as a cycle fueled by short-sightedness, impatience, and the pursuit of immediate results at the expense of sustained success.

What Maple Leafs Fans Should Expect to Happen

In the cynical view, the Maple Leafs’ hiring of a new coach will follow a predictable pattern. There will be initial excitement, followed by a gradual erosion of confidence and trust as the season(s) progresses. Who knows how long it will take, but this new voice will become an old one that will need to be replaced by another new one – somewhere down the highway.

Just as they did when Keefe replaced Mike Babcock, the new coaching voice will likely follow these pre-ordained steps:

Step One: There Will Be Initial Excitement When the New Coach Is Named

When the Maple Leafs announce hiring a new coach, fans will react optimistically. The new coach will bring the team fresh ideas, strategies, and energy. Finally, the move will lead the Maple Leafs to success.

The new coach will experience some success in the early stages of next season. Games will be won, and praise will be earned for his innovative approach. Players will probably respond positively to the change in leadership, and there may be signs of improvement in areas lacking under Keefe’s coaching. [The curious aspect for the Maple Leafs is that little of this regular-season success will matter because fans have seen it all before. The team experienced great regular-season success. Can it translate to the postseason? That’s the big question.]

Step Two: The New Voice Will Experience Growing Pains

However, the team may encounter challenges and setbacks somewhere down the road. The new coach’s strategies will be questioned, and losses will mount. Fans (and eventually the organization) will become frustrated with the constant changes in tactics and lineups, and tension will grow in the locker room.

Brad Treliving Brendan Shanahan Maple Leafs

As losses pile up or the team fails in its postseason journey, fans will become increasingly disillusioned with the new coach and the team’s direction. Calls for firing the coach will grow, and pressure may mount on Maple Leafs management to make changes.

Eventually, when the Maple Leafs continue to underperform, the once-new coach will be fired, and the cycle of musical chairs will begin again. The team will search for a new coach with a new voice that promises a fresh start and a return to the organization’s winning ways.

The Cynical View Wonders What This Is All For

In this cynical view, hiring a new coach becomes a cycle of hiring and firing that perpetuates itself with change in the franchise’s long-term stability or success. Once again, it proves that Einstein was right in his definition of insanity.

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