Toronto Maple Leafs fire head coach Sheldon Keefe after another early playoff exit

Sheldon Keefe took his place in the front of a dozen television cameras.

The Maple Leafs head coach — on centre stage inside a small auditorium at the team’s practice facility — was optimistic about the future for both himself and the group.

Keefe also understood Toronto had yet to meet expectations under his watch after its ultra-talented roster bowed out at the post-season’s first stage for a fourth time in five years.

He knew his job might be in jeopardy.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe leaves after speaking to the media in Toronto on Monday May 6, 2024, after his team’s season ending loss to Boston Bruins in the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. The Maple Leafs have fired Keefe. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

“Ownership and management, they make those types of decisions,” Keefe said Monday afternoon. “I accept responsibility for not meeting results.”

That failure ultimately led to his dismissal some 72 hours later.

The Leafs fired Keefe on Thursday following the Original Six franchise’s loss to the Boston Bruins in seven games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

General manager Brad Treliving called it a “difficult” decision to move on. 

“Sheldon is an excellent coach and a great man,” he said in a statement. “However, we determined a new voice is needed to help the team push through to reach our ultimate goal.”

The organization added the search for a replacement has already begun and that decisions regarding the remainder of the coaching staff would follow.

Keefe put up a combined 212-97-40 record over parts of five campaigns in Toronto, but was just 16-21 in the post-season, including a 1-5 series mark. 

Despite finally getting the organization over a painful playoff hump last spring when the Leafs advanced for the first time in nearly two decades, Keefe was unable to keep that momentum going. 

Toronto bowed out in a tepid five games to the Florida Panthers in the second round in 2023 before Kyle Dubas was fired as GM less than two weeks later. 

That situation led to questions about Keefe’s future, but Treliving elected to keep the Dubas loyalist after taking over, and then inked the Brampton, Ont., product to a contract extension last summer.

“Sheldon was really transparent and honest and accountable,” Treliving said in August. “I always think you have to first start with yourself and critique your own performance, which I think Sheldon has done.” 

Keefe guided the Leafs to third in the Atlantic this season as sniper Auston Matthews chased the league’s first 70-goal campaign since 1992-93 before coming up one short in securing his third Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy. 

But Toronto’s series against Boston followed a familiar playoff script with sub-par special teams — the power play went an appalling 1-for-21 — and goaltending its ultimate undoing. 

The Leafs battled back down 3-1 in the series with a pair of hard-fought 2-1 victories, including one in overtime, before falling to the Bruins by the same scoreline in OT in Game 7 on Saturday. 

A migraine headache that impacted winger William Nylander’s vision and kept him out of the lineup for the first three contests certainly didn’t help the cause, while Matthews battled illness and injury after a monster Game 2. He sat for Games 5 and 6 before returning for the do-or-die finale at far less than 100 per cent. 

Keefe, who did not take part in player exit interviews at the start of the week, remained bullish on the path forward. 

“Now more than ever, I believe in myself and our team,” he said Monday. “That I will win and our team will win.” 

Keefe won in Toronto — just not enough in the playoffs. 

He guided the Leafs to franchise-highs for points (115) and victories (54) in 2021-22, while Matthews secured his first Hart Trophy as NHL MVP after putting up 60 goals before the team lost in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

Toronto took a slight step back in 2022-23, but Keefe then led the Leafs to the franchise’s first series victory since 2004 when John Tavares scored in OT of Game 6 in the rematch against Tampa, but they were no match for the Panthers — a gritty group that previously upset of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins before reaching the Cup final.

The 43-year-old Keefe, who replaced Mike Babcock in November 2019, watched his players score two goals or fewer in 13 of his final 14 playoff games in charge — not nearly good enough from the so-called “Core Four” of Matthews, Tavares, Nylander and Mitch Marner, who account for roughly half of the club’s salary cap.

Previously on the hot seat early in 2022-2023, Keefe’s other post-season setbacks came in the 2020 pandemic-necessitated five-game qualifying round against the Columbus Blue Jackets and a disastrous blown 3-1 series lead in 2021 against the Montreal Canadiens. 

Keefe, who led the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies to a Calder Cup title in 2018, also appeared to be in trouble in May 2022 when Toronto lost to Tampa in that first-round series despite leading 3-2. 

Treliving initially held firm after taking the reins, but was eventually forced to pull the trigger on a coaching change for an organization with a Cup drought that now stands at 57 years. 

“That decision’s out of my control,” Keefe said Monday of his immediate future in what would be his final public comments as Leafs head coach. 

“You’ve got to be accountable when you don’t meet expectations.”

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