Sheldon Keefe has a spot open on his Toronto Maple Leafs coaching staff.
The Maple Leafs announced Friday that assistant coach Paul McFarland will leave the organization at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season and return to the head coaching post with the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs.
He will remain with the club — and “100 percent committed” — through until the beginning of next season, according to a joint release provided by the team.
McFarland was hired by Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas last summer to serve under former head coach Mike Babcock following a two-year stint on the bench with the Florida Panthers. He was brought on specifically to run the power play after turning in tremendous results with the Panthers’ special teams unit in 2018-19.
Under McFarland, the Leafs ranked sixth in total power play with 23.1 percent conversion rate, but even so it seemed the incredibly talented core he had at his disposal underperformed to a degree, and that stagnancy seemed to creep into the systems as the campaign wore on.
While it will be an immense challenge to improve on a unit that converted at a top-six level in the NHL, for the first time in his NHL coaching career Keefe will have his say when building out a staff. Keefe inherited a complete coaching staff — which for the moment still includes assistant coach Dave Hakstol — when he replaced Babcock in late November.
McFarland, 34, spent three seasons as the Frontenacs head coach before graduating to the NHL in 2017, but there is a key difference, now, with his return. He will now rejoin a franchise that boasts Shane Wright, the prospective first overall selection in the 2022 NHL Draft, and a prospect who just completed an exceptional abbreviated rookie season after being granted exceptional status to join the OHL at 15 years old.
Still, while the opportunity to coach a potentially generational talent is alluring, major questions surround junior hockey as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens the network of developmental leagues in North America. Simply put, the NHL is far greater prepared to withstand the challenges of a public health crisis, and therefore the opportunity to work is far more secure at the highest level of the sport.
That alone could signal that the writing was on the wall for McFarland, and that the Leafs were going to allow Keefe to re-work his staff this summer.
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