Monday, May 13, 2024

Sheldon Keefe firing: He was a sacrificial lamb

Sheldon Keefe

Sheldon Keefe did not really deserve to be fired.  The Toronto Maple Leafs decided that someone had to take the heat for their usual early exit from the playoffs.  That someone was Sheldon Keefe.  With the exception of the first game of the Boston series, the Leafs acquitted themselves fairly well against the Bruins.  They were not completely outplayed by Boston.  They did not choke.  It wasn't entirely Keefe's fault that they ultimately lost the series early in the first overtime period of the seventh and deciding game.

Some may argue that Sheldon Keefe had his chance and didn't succeed.  He failed to coach the Leafs to any real playoff success.  Keefe was gracious in the wake of his firing.  He accepted responsibility for the teams inability to get past the first round of the 2024 playoffs.  "I didn't get the job done in the playoffs," he said.  "I didn't help push our team over the line and deliver.  I accept responsibility for that.  No excuses.  That's the job.  I didn't get it done.  It's the reality of the business and I accept it."

In the Age of Trump, it's refreshing to hear someone accept responsibility (Ross Atkins, the Blue Jays' GM, should do more of that).  However, the Leafs' failure to advance in the playoffs should not rest squarely on Keefe's shoulders.  That's not fair.  Surely Brendan Shanahan, the team's president and Brad Treliving, the team's general manager, share some of the blame, as well as certain players.  There was also some pure bad luck, such as injuries to William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Joseph Woll.  Let's be honest though, when push came to shove, the Leafs were not quite good enough to defeat the Boston Bruins.  A championship team should be able to overcome injury and adversity.

When Brendan Shanahan retuned to T.O, in 2014, he came up with a plan, the so-called ShanaPlan.  He was going to end a Stanley Cup drought for the Leafs that goes back to 1967.  Shanahan, a hometown boy from Mimico, Ontario, intended to bring the Cup back to Toronto.  There was going to be a parade along Yonge Street and Leaf fans dreamed of captain John Tavares, another hometown boy, hoisting Lord Stanley's Jug.  It hasn't happened,  In the decade since Shanahan's arrival, the team has failed miserably in the playoffs, only getting past the first round in 2023.

Brendan Shanahan

Shanahan became convinced that the Leafs could win with their celebrated Core Four, consisting of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander.  Ten years later, after another first-round defeat at the hands of the Boston Bruins, Leaf Nation is disappointed, distraught and absolutely frustrated.  The Leafs have performed well in the regular season, but have never gotten the job done in the playoffs.  It seems obvious to almost everyone but Shanahan that the Core Four can never succeed in postseason play.

Due to the high salaries of the Core Four, the Leafs don't have a balanced team.  They lack a great goalie and a really strong defence, two major ingredients for contending in the playoffs.  Granted, it's extremely difficult to win the Stanley Cup.  The path to victory is long and gruelling.  There are now 32 teams in the NHL.  When the Leafs last won the Cup in 1967, there were only six teams.  Instead of a one in six chance of winning the championship, the Leafs now have a one in 32 chance. There are too many teams and the playoffs drag on far too long.  I understand that the NHL is a business, but the integrity of the game should still count for something.  

I am a Baby Boomer.  I was a child when the Leafs won the Cup in 1967, Canada's centennial year.  I wonder if I will ever see them do it again in my lifetime.  I will be greatly satisfied, however, if the Edmonton Oilers or the Vancouver Canucks triumph this year.  No Canadian-based team has brought home hockey's most coveted trophy since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens were victorious.  Oh yes, while I'm up on my soapbox, I have to question why there isn't an NHL team in Quebec City, which has a beautiful new arena.  By the way, I an not talking about an expansion team.  I mean that Quebec City could replace a struggling team in the Eastern Conference, possibly the Columbus Blue Jackets; but I digress.  

That's a discussion for another day.  Let's turn our attention back to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Sheldon Keefe.  As Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star so eloquently put it, "Keefe is the fall guy for a much broader and graver dearth of internal resolve on the team, a cultural hurdle they haven't been able to clear.  A scapegoat because that's what the franchise requires at this moment - excising a blighted part."

After a decade, it's time to admit that the ShanaPlan hasn't worked.  It's time to break up the Core Four and move on.  It would be wiser to build a team more suited to the playoffs.

- Joanne

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