Maple Leafs Making Right Call By Keeping Dubas & Keefe

No beating around the bush here. The Toronto Maple Leafs lost another Game 7, this time to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Every year, there’s a conversation to this effect. What went wrong, what does the team improve for next season, and what do they have to do to finally get over the hump that is winning a round? This time, though, the conversation feels a little bit different — at least for me. The Maple Leafs got contributions from all around the team, right until the very end, and the lost series wasn’t a matter of shooting themselves in the foot as it has been in years past.

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Even so, regardless of “how” the loss happened, it happened. And yesterday, the Maple Leafs were once again holding their end-of-season media availability in May instead of June. All members of the Maple Leafs’ core fielded questions from media, with the exception of Mitch Marner, who was not available after he was the victim of a car-jacking the night before. Head coach Sheldon Keefe, general manager Kyle Dubas, and team president Brendan Shanahan also took questions from reporters.

Shanahan was obviously the big name here, as he’s been team president since the end of the 2013-14 season, and only meets with the media once per year. While most people had a sense of what he would have to say, he confirmed it Tuesday afternoon by expressing his belief in the group that this team has between the players, coaching staff, and front office.

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs
Kyle Dubas, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Alana Davidson/NHLI via Getty Images)

There’s a good chunk of the fanbase that surely didn’t want to hear this, and I can’t really say I blame anybody who has that opinion. No matter how you cut it, losing in the first round of the playoffs six years in a row is hard to justify without making any major changes. Having said that, I believe Shanahan is making the right call in retaining Dubas and Keefe for next season, as much as a portion of the fanbase would disagree.

Maple Leafs Shouldn’t Make a Change Just to Make a Change

I’m guilty of thinking like this too, from time to time. In fact, I did last season after the Game 7 loss to Montreal. With the way they progressively got worse throughout the series, and closed it out with one of the most uninspired efforts I’ve ever seen in Game 7, I wanted them to do something. Something to shake up the core, something to shock the organization — anything. If they were going to do that, last season would have been the time to do it. But after losing in seven games to the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, it would be one of those reactionary, knee-jerk moves that has burned the franchise in the past.

I know that logic sounds backwards, considering they deserved all the heat they took last season, so why is it all of a sudden acceptable that they went out in Round 1 after the sixth straight season with this outcome? The answer to that is that there was progress. No matter how much you can try to deny it and tie it to the past five years of early tee times, there was progress this season.

Like I said before, the biggest concern with last year’s team was the evaporation of any effort, or “killer instinct” as we’ve heard so many times, when they had a chance to take the series. So when they follow that “effort” up with a hard-fought, seven game series that quite literally comes down to one goal against, again, the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, it’s a step in the right direction, even if they didn’t achieve the one thing they set out to do this season. And if it’s Pierre Engvall or Ilya Mikheyev who score two goals instead of Nick Paul in Game 7, nobody is having this discussion. Hockey is a fast-paced game where lots of tiny factors can contribute to a win, and if those factors went in Toronto’s favour, Dubas and Keefe are safe from criticism as is the rest of the team. As Matthews put it, they were “right there”.

The Maple Leafs finished with more points than they’ve ever had in a single season. Auston Matthews scored 60 goals. Marner and William Nylander had 35 and 34 goals, respectively. They had seven players with at least 50 points, and six players who scored at least 20 goals. Sure, these are all regular season achievements that are being overshadowed by their first-round exit, but this is plain and simple the most talented Maple Leafs team they’ve ever had. Making a big change when there aren’t really any glaring needs that stemmed from this series would be moving in the wrong direction, especially with teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, and Montreal Canadiens eventually on the rise.

Dubas took over as general manager prior to the 2018-19 season, and Keefe didn’t take over as head coach until a month and change into the 2019-20 season. It’s easy to lump these two in with not only the previous first-round exits in the Matthews era, but the franchise’s failures as a whole over the past 55 years. But it’s impossible not to see improvements that have been made to the team since 2018-19, and giving either of these guys a pink slip wouldn’t be the instant fix some people seem to think it is.

Coach Keefe’s Winning Pedigree Will Eventually Catch Up to the NHL

Keefe’s path to the NHL is a fun one to look back on. He took over as head coach of the Junior A Pembroke Lumber Kings in 2006-07 after purchasing the team in 2003, and led them to five straight championships. He stayed with the Lumber Kings before taking over as head coach of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL)’s Soo Greyhounds. He coached them to three winning seasons, including their greatest season in franchise history, and he made a couple of deep runs with the team before taking over as head coach of the American Hockey League (AHL)’s Toronto Marlies in 2015-16. He coached the Marlies (and many players who would eventually become full time NHLers) for four seasons, including a Calder Cup win in 2017-18.

Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe
Former Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe, second left, celebrates with his coaching and training staff (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Since replacing Mike Babcock as Maple Leafs head coach in November 2019, Keefe has a coaching record of 116-50-19 at the NHL level, but the gut reaction here is to point out that his lack of playoff success reflects his overall ability as a head coach. Like the players, though, Keefe improved as a coach in 2021-22. He was able to read around Lightning head coach Jon Cooper’s matchups, and his stars didn’t find themselves shellshocked against the Lightning’s good defensive players. Was he perfect? No. But he didn’t get outcoached like he did against Montreal.

As much as the firing of the head coach would send a shock of adrenaline through the fanbase, and make it seem like the Maple Leafs are putting their foot down, firing Keefe isn’t a move that has any logic behind it besides “the Leafs need to do something, another first round loss is unacceptable.” The 2021-22 season was the first full 82-game season he was behind the bench for, and he isn’t the root of the issue this team has with winning in the playoffs. Every good coach starts somewhere, and he’s proven at every other level that he knows how to inspire his team to win games.

Maple Leafs’ Dubas Has Built a Playoff-Ready Roster Each Season, Despite Losses

If anybody were to have their job on the line after the latest playoff exit, it would have to be Dubas. He’s officially been at the helm for the past four first-round exits, and his early financial commitment to the Maple Leafs’ star players looks worse and worse every time the team fails to get it done in the postseason. But looking at the moves Dubas has made since he took over as GM, it’s hard to fault him for this year’s playoff loss, especially when comparing it to last season.

Kyle Dubas Toronto Maple Leafs Draft
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Dubas clearly learned his lesson from 2020-21 when he traded a first-round pick to acquire veteran Nick Foligno. His 2022 trade deadline move to acquire Mark Giordano and Colin Blackwell from Seattle for two second and one third round pick provided far better results. So did his move of turning Nick Ritchie and a second-round pick into hard-hitting defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin, especially considering the rumours that Dubas was going to have to trade a draft pick just to get another team to take Ritchie.

When you look at the team on paper, you would have to be blind to not see the improvements made to the team. A top four that once featured the likes of Travis Dermott and Justin Holl now has T.J. Brodie and Giordano instead, and even though the results haven’t transferred to playoff success yet, he’s clearly doing everything he can to improve the roster and give his team the best chance to win each year. From there, it’s on the players. And like I said, there was improvement on that front this season.

It’s also worth noting that firing Dubas before the players from the drafts he oversaw get a chance to flower would be foolish. Nick Robertson, Roni Hirvonen, and Topi Niemela all look like they could become great NHL players, and 2021 second round pick Matthew Knies is already looking like he should have gone in the first round.

Is Dubas perfect? Absolutely not. The Foligno deal was bad. The Mason Marchment for Denis Malgin deal was bad. The Nazem Kadri for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot trade looks terrible now too, even though I still believe that was the right move to make at the time. But each year, I think the consensus was that the team heading into the playoffs WAS talented enough to make a deep playoff run, they just ran into their own demons and folded when the stakes were highest. That’s on the players, not Dubas. And taking the defending Cup champs to seven games is not the same as shooting yourselves in the foot and choking a series away to the Canadiens.

Maple Leafs Should Tweak Roster and Run it Back

Here’s the way I look at it: The Maple Leafs are a very good hockey team that lost a seven-game series to another very good hockey team. They managed to score at least three goals in each game but the last one, their defense was tight, and while goaltending could have been better, Andrei Vasilveskiy didn’t vastly outplay Jack Campbell. Matthews and Marner, who took most of the heat for that Montreal series, led the Maple Leafs in points with nine and eight points, respectively. John Tavares stepped up in the games that mattered most after starting off quiet, and the same could be said about Nylander.

All season I told myself I was going to hold this team accountable if they went out in the first round again. But after watching every single playoff game, watching the officials’ rulebook change in each game, and watching them battle Tampa until the final buzzer, I can say with confidence that I don’t believe this year’s first round exit was the same as the others, as comical as that might sound out of context.

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The bottom line is I believe this group does have what it takes to get it done, eventually. And when they finally get that first round monkey off of their back, I believe the sky is the limit for them. You can feel free to disagree, as I’m sure many people will, but you can see that the drive to get it done is there. And while what they do with their roster this summer is mostly unknown, keeping Dubas and Keefe on board was the right call.

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