Toronto Maple Leafs make high-stakes bet swapping Mike Babcock for Sheldon Keefe

Sporting News

When Brendan Shanahan took the podium on Thursday morning alongside general manager Kyle Dubas, the Toronto Maple Leafs president went out of his way to underline the fact that he and Dubas are completely unified when it comes to how they view a team should be built.

“I want to make it really clear that we’re aligned and that this is how I see a team should be built as well,” Shanahan said.

Really, what else was he to say at this point?

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The way in which the Maple Leafs have been assembled — prioritizing speed and skill above all else — is as much Shanahan’s vision as it is Dubas. Shanahan has ultimately placed his bet for the future of Toronto on a coach assuming the job with no NHL experience and a general manager, who assumed the job with no NHL experience over a Stanley Cup-winning future Hall of Fame coach in Mike Babcock (who recently became only the eighth coach to reach the 700 win plateau) and Stanley Cup-winning, Hockey Hall of Fame member, Lou Lamoriello as GM.

MORE: Babcock statement | Who is Sheldon Keefe?

This is not to say it won’t work, but it’s an aggressive bet.

What we are watching now, and have been watching since Dubas took over as general manager from Lamoriello in May of 2018 is one grand science experiment playing out in real-time. The Maple Leafs are built on the theory, albeit an untested one, that they are designed to compete in a style that the game is trending to.

Will it work more effectively now that Keefe, a coach who has had a long relationship with Dubas dating back to their days running the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League and the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League, is at the helm in place of Babcock? We don’t know yet, but we will soon start to find out.

So far, the returns have not been pretty.

Shanahan also addressed the constant clamouring for an injection of toughness and grit to the roster.

“I think sometimes people want to simplistically put us in one box as ‘speed and skill’ and ‘toughness and grit’ in an entirely different box. We want to also be tough and gritty,” Shanahan said. “Our interpretation of toughness and grittiness might be different than someone who played in the ’70s and ’80s or coached then.”

The confusing part is that nobody is asking for a roster built like the Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s. He more clearly defined how he and Dubas view “toughness and grit.”

“How we define that to our players is winning battles and being mentally tough, making a mistake and not become weak or small because of it,” Shanahan said. “We’re aligned on how we want to build this team.”

MORE: Twitter reacts to Babcock firing | What's next for Babcock?

But that is the very type of “toughness and grit” the team, as currently constructed, has shown an inability or unwillingness to execute. Can Keefe glean this out of the current roster better than Babcock could or is the personnel just not capable, or willing, to play that way? Again, we’ll soon find out.

Keefe has 59 games to turn around an underperforming roster and get them into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Missing the postseason would be an unmitigated disaster for a team that entered the season with Cup aspirations. There will be no feeling-out process for the new coach; it's all heavy pressure for Keefe. Babcock took a lot of heat and a lot of criticism. With him gone, further underperformance will lead to heat on Dubas and Shanahan himself, though the president does not see it that way.

“I don’t see this decision by Kyle and the team as a situation where traditionalists might say, ‘well you’ve spent your bullet.’ That’s not how I view it and I can tell you that’s not how our ownership views it,” Shanahan said. “We’re in this together; we’re making moves and evolving as we see we have to do. You don’t set out with an idea, our plan and not evolve or make shifts throughout that plan.”

Talk to us a year from now if this season goes down the tubes and next season has a similarly poor start. It would be shocking if the Maple Leafs ownership group, at that point, is extending the same level of leniency as Shanahan is suggesting they do today.

Dubas committed to John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander, tying up essentially half the salary cap in four forwards. It has left the Maple Leafs with their hands tied in a number of areas: addressing issues on defense, finding an adequate backup goaltender and filling out the bottom of their roster — all areas where proficiency is vital if a team is going to contend for a Stanley Cup.

Was Babcock’s firing the right decision? Time will tell.

Was he free from blame? No.

But should he shoulder all the blame? Far from it.

With Keefe in place, the Maple Leafs will now ultimately be judged on the bet Dubas and Shanahan have placed. The clock is now ticking.

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