Toronto — The Toronto Maple Leafs have fired head coach Mike Babcock and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe.
Babcock had a record of 9-10-4 in 2019-20 for the struggling Leafs, who are 0-5-1 in their last six games, including five straight losses in regulation.
Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan flew to Arizona on Wednesday to break the news to Babcock along with general manager Kyle Dubas. Shanahan said that he felt he should be present as he hired Babcock in the spring of 2015.
“It wasn’t an easy conversation to have and it wasn’t pleasant, days like today are not,” Shanahan said in Scottsdale, Arizona. “But it was what we felt was important for the club. Once you realize there’s something you should do, and have to do, then it’s best to act on it.”
Toronto, two points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, fell 4-2 to the Golden Knights in Vegas on Tuesday night. Babcock’s last win for the Leafs, on Nov. 7 against Vegas, was the 700th of his NHL career. He has a career record of 700-418-19 with Toronto, Detroit and Anaheim.
Hired as part of a massive rebuild, the 56-year-old Babcock went 173-133-45 in his four-plus seasons with Toronto. He joined the Leafs with an impressive resume, having won the Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008 and back-to-back Olympic gold medals with Canada in 2010 and 2014.
After signing the richest coaching contract in NHL history at US$50 million over eight years, Babcock got Toronto to the playoffs the last three seasons, but was unable to advance beyond the first round.
The 39-year-old Keefe, who has a long history with Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, was in his fifth season as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. Keefe was 199-89-31 with the Marlies and helped secure the franchise’s first Calder Cup championship in 2018.
“Our relationship has grown,” Keefe said about Dubas in May.
“He really opened my eyes to how much there is to learn and how to look at things a little bit differently.”
Toronto’s last four in-season coach firings — Pat Burns, Ron Wilson, Randy Carlyle and now Babcock — all took place with the team on the road.
Babcock’s Leafs stumbled this season despite a star-studded forward group led by Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, a defense corps headlined by Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin, and goalie Frederik Andersen.
“Our game is not really meeting our expectations,” Shanahan said. “We’re mistake-prone on defense, the attention to details aren’t there, and even the explosive offense that our team was known for has been missing for a while now, so there’s a lot of work for Sheldon to do and there’s a lot of work for the players to do.”