TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday 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.
“Today, we made the decision to relieve Mike Babcock of his coaching duties and named Sheldon Keefe our new head coach,” Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement. “Over parts of the last five seasons, Mike has played an integral role in changing the direction of our franchise.
“Mike’s commitment and tireless work ethic has put our organization in a better place and we are extremely grateful and appreciative of the foundation he has helped us build here. At this time, we collectively felt that it was best to make a change to Sheldon Keefe.”
Hired as part of Toronto’s massive rebuild in the spring of 2015, the 56-year-old Babcock went 173-133-45 in his four-plus seasons with Toronto.
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.
Babcock came to Toronto with an impressive resume, having won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 and back-to-back Olympic gold medals with Canada in 2010 and 2014. He has a career record of 700-418-19 with Toronto, Detroit and Anaheim.
Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith, who spent four years as an assistant on Babcock’s staff in Toronto, praised Babcock for his professionalism.
“He gave me my chance in the National Hockey League,” Smith said Wednesday in Montreal, before the Senators faced the Canadiens. “He showed me the NHL and he did a great job every day. It’s a tough time for him and his family and I certainly feel for him.”
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 led the Marlies to a 199-89-31 record during his time with the club and was twice named the AHL coach of the year. He helped the Marlies capture the franchise’s first Calder Cup championship in 2018.
Babcock’s Leafs stumbled this season despite a star-studded forward group led by Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, a defence corps led by Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin, and goalie Frederik Andersen.
Despite that talent up front, Toronto was unable to find traction after a summer of change that saw a number of Babcock’s trusted veterans leave town as part of a salary cap crunch precipitated by big-money contract extensions handed to Matthews and Marner.
In fact, Toronto’s Big 4 chewed up nearly half of the $81.5-million cap, leaving Dubas to try and fill in the roster around the edges with young players and discount veterans.