The Toronto Maple Leafs announced on Tuesday that Sheldon Keefe has been signed to a two-year contract extension, ensuring he’ll remain the Toronto Marlies head coach for at least the 2019-20 season.
“Over the last four seasons Sheldon has done a great job developing our individual prospects into Maple Leafs while also guiding the Marlies deep into the playoffs in each of his four seasons with the organization, including the Calder Cup in 2018,” said Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager. “Ensuring that Sheldon remains tasked with guiding the development of our prospects was very important to our program and the reason we began the discussion to extend Sheldon months ago.”
“It’s been a privilege and honour to be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization and head coach of the Toronto Marlies for the past four seasons,” said Keefe. “In my conversations with the Leafs over the past several months, I felt that staying on with this club was the best decision for me, my family and my development. I’m incredibly proud of our recent achievements as a club and I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue to develop young Maple Leafs.”
This news will be viewed and talked about almost exclusively through the ‘eventual replacement for Babcock’ lens in this market, but looking at Sheldon Keefe’s own motives, he is probably smart to take his time until the NHL opportunity is right, whether it’s in Toronto or elsewhere. And to be clear, should Mike Babcock and the Leafs start winning in the playoffs, there are few guarantees it will be in Toronto.
Keefe is in an ideal spot for now with the unmatched resources at his disposal in the AHL, how well he’s supported by management, and how handsomely he’s being compensated. Presumably, Keefe has been moved along to the point where his salary would be competitive with many low-to-mid tier NHL coaches, and for the Leafs organization with MLSE resources at their disposal, this is definitely a shrewd use of those resources. This franchise has been paying $5 million a year to make David Clarkson’s contract go away and $1.2 million a season so it could send Phil Kessel to win Cups in Pittsburgh, so a million-plus (as a rough estimate) on keeping the best-available coach developing your young talent — a coach who has shown an ability to meld player development objectives and winning hockey games in a very effective manner — is a no-brainer.
There is definitely an element of loyalty to Kyle Dubas at play here as well given their history together, but clearly, Keefe sees no need to jump at the first opportunity(ies) that comes his way as well, and there could be something quite wise in that approach. As hard as it is to get into the NHL head coaching club, it can also be an awfully-short lifespan if you find yourself in the wrong situation in your first kick at the can, a la former Marlies coach Dallas Eakins.
There is the risk that the Marlies begin to slow down as far as their on-ice results and his NHL stock cools off, but given the resources the Leafs franchise is dedicating to ensure there is high-end veteran talent present on the AHL roster (paid at NHL salaries, such as Chris Mueller, who was the Marlies’ best player this season) and the amount of young talent at his disposal at the moment (as well as the faith that Dubas will keep the pipeline flowing from a draft perspective), that seems less than likely. The Marlies have made the playoffs eight years in a row, including two Finals appearances, five Conference Finals appearances, and five division titles; Keefe has been around for two Conference Finals appearances, a second-round appearance, and a Calder Cup win while amassing a 189-87-20-1 regular season record in his four years in Toronto. Just 38 years of age, Keefe is set up very well here for continued success.
All in all, this is fantastic news for the Leafs and the Marlies, and certainly, prime fodder for the media to chew on this summer and beyond.