TORONTO (AP) — 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.

 

TORONTO, ON – OCTOBER 19: Head coach Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs takes in the warm-up prior to action against the Boston Bruins in an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 19, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

 

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.”

 

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – JUNE 22: Brendan Shanahan of the Toronto Maple Leafs attends the 2019 NHL Draft at the Rogers Arena on June 22, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 

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 Maple 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.

 

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – JUNE 21: (L-R) Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock attend the 2019 NHL Draft at the Rogers Arena on June 21, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 

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.

 

BUFFALO, NY – NOVEMBER 27: Right wing Sheldon Keefe #28 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates into position against the Buffalo Sabres during the NHL game at HSBC Arena on November 27, 2002 in Buffalo, New York. The Lightning and the Sabres skated to a 1-1 tie. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images/NHLI)

 

“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.

The Maple Leafs are set to take on Coyotes on Thursday night. Shanahan, Dubas and Keefe were all scheduled to speak with the media Thursday morning.

 

NEWARK, NJ – APRIL 05: Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs handles bench duties against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on April 5, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Maple Leafs 2-1 to clinch a playoff position. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 

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.

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 forwards 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.

 

SUNRISE, FL – JUNE 26: Kyle Dubas Assistant General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs talks on the phone as President Brendan Shanahan looks on during the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center on June 26, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 

“Our game is not really meeting our expectations,” Shanahan said. “We’re mistake-prone on defence, the attention to details aren’t there, and even the explosive offence 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.”

The young Leafs surprised many by making the playoffs in 2016-17 before falling to the Washington Capitals in six games. Babcock was unable to get Toronto past the Boston Bruins the last two springs, losing both series in seven games.

The 2019 series was especially frustrating given that the Leafs led 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 with a chance to close things out at home in Game 6 before the Bruins fought back to win two straight.

 

TORONTO, ON – APRIL 21: Torey Krug #47 of the Boston Bruins celebrates a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game Six of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on April 21, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

 

While there’s no questioning Babcock’s track record, there seemed to be a disconnect between the coach and GM in terms of roster construction and style of play after Dubas took over the top job from Lou Lamoriello in May 2018.

Driving by data and analytics, Dubas focused on skill and speed — basically trying to win with four first lines — rather than the grinding type of player Babcock had previously preferred in his bottom-6 forward group.

Toronto’s lack of attention to detail in the defensive zone the last two seasons and sub-par specialty teams were both troubling aspects Babcock was unable to rectify, even after changing assistant coaches this season.

 

TORONTO,ON – SEPTEMBER 21: John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple leafs congratulates teammate Curtis McElhinney #35 on a win against the Buffalo Sabres in an NHL pre-season game at Scotiabank Arena on September 21, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Sabres 5-3. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

 

Backup goalie was also a constant headache after the Leafs lost veteran Curtis McElhinney on waivers before the start of the 2018-19 campaign. Garret Sparks never gained Babcock’s trust, while Michael Hutchinson secured just one point in five starts before getting demoted to the AHL.

Before the season, Dubas was asked about his relationship with Babcock, who was heavily criticized for his deployment of Matthews in Game 7 of Toronto’s first-round playoff exit last spring.

“We talk a lot,” Dubas said at the start of training camp. “We disagree, as any coach and GM do a lot. We agree on a lot of things and we work through it all. The key is, on areas that you disagree, that you respect one another and you work through all that.”

 

(Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

 

“We communicate all the time,” Babcock added in September. “We don’t agree all the time. I’ve enjoyed it. We’re excited about our opportunity.”

Babcock also knew he’d be on the hot seat if things went sideways.

“I do, for sure,” Babcock said. “The expectation each and every year should be greater than the previous year if you’re going in the right direction.”

 

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