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Keefe out as coach after latest Maple Leaf early playoff exit

Bench boss had a 212-97-40 record over parts of 5 campaigns in Toronto
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe speaks to the media in Toronto on Monday May 6, 2024. The Maple Leafs have fired Keefe.The team made the announcement Thursday after the Original Six franchise lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

The Toronto Maple Leafs have fired head coach Sheldon Keefe.

General manager Brad Treliving made the announcement Thursday after the Original Six franchise lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Keefe had a 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 record.

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 dismissal led to questions about Keefe’s future, but Treliving elected to keep the Dubas loyalist after taking the reins, and then inked the Brampton, Ont., product to a contract extension through 2025-26.

Treliving called the decision to move on “difficult.”

“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.

“We thank Sheldon for his hard work and dedication to the organization over the last nine years, and wish him and his family all the very best.”

The organization added it “will immediately begin the search for a new head coach, and decisions regarding the remainder of the coaching staff will follow.”

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 just one short to finish with a tally of 69 in securing his third Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy.

But Toronto’s series against Boston followed a familiar Leafs’ playoff script with sub-par special teams — the power play went an appalling 1-for-21 — and goaltending the team’s 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 of Game 7.

A migraine headache that impacted winger William Nylander’s vision that 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 spoke to reporters as the players parted ways Monday (May 6), taking responsibility for failing to meet expectations, but also bullish on the future.

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

Keefe did indeed win in Toronto — just not enough in the playoffs.

He guided the team 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 before the Leafs lost a tough, seven-game series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Toronto took a slight step back in 2022-23, but still finished second in the Atlantic with the same nucleus of high-paid forwards led by Matthews, Nylander, Mitch Marner and John Tavares.

Keefe then led the Leafs to the franchise’s first series victory since 2004 when Tavares scored in overtime of Game 6 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 team 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, Marner, Nylander and Tavares, who account for roughly half of the club’s salary cap.

Previously on the hot seat early in 2022-2023 after a sputtering Leafs’ start, Keefe’s other post-season setbacks came in the pandemic-necessitated five-game qualifying round against the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2020 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 with Dubas after the pair also worked side-by-side in junior, appeared to be in trouble in May 2022 when Toronto lost to Tampa in that first-round series after leading 3-2 with two shots to advance.

Treliving also held firm last spring, but was eventually forced to pull the trigger for an organization with a Cup drought that now stands at 57 years.

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