The Toronto Maple Leafs announced today that assistant coach Paul McFarland will be departing the club after the end of the 2019-20 season to return to the role of head coach of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs.

The path from OHL head coach to successful NHL assistant coach — presiding over some highly effective power plays in both Florida and Toronto — and then back to OHL head coach isn’t the traditional one for a young coach on the rise, but we’ll leave any speculation on McFarland’s personal motivations aside.

The initial results for the team’s power play under McFarland this season were concerning, with the team underperforming at 17.6% (mid-pack in the league) prior to the firing of head coach Mike Babcock.

However, once Sheldon Keefe took over the bench, it seemed to free up McFarland — who could often be seen highlighting teachable moments on his iPad on the bench during games — to infuse some new ideas and creativity. He implemented a few different looks and became more aggressive in the deployment of his top weapons, pushing the average power-play shift length for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares closer to the 1:30 range — a point of contention under Mike Babcock, who wanted to roll two units while keeping his big guns fresher for after the power play.

McFarland tried out Nylander — previously somewhat stranded on the second unit — in the slot role of the top power play, utilized Matthews’ developing one-timer more often, and gave Tyson Barrie the reins on the point. There remained points of frustration and inconsistency — the lack of shot threat outside of Matthews made it predictable for spells, while the team’s execution on entries wavered at times, and Morgan Rielly was confined to the second unit — but it was hard to argue with the results, as the Leafs’ man advantage clicked at 26.4% post-coaching change, good for second in the NHL from November 20 onward.

Over that time period, Nylander and Matthews were top ten in the league in power-play goals with eight apiece. The PP opportunity no doubt helped fuel the confidence of Nylander, who was in the midst of a big bounce-back season and on pace for his first-ever 30-goal season prior to the suspension of the 2019-20 campaign.

While Sheldon Keefe may have been going in the direction of bringing in his own assistants this offseason, McFarland, from the outside looking in, appeared to be a good candidate to remain on Keefe’s bench into next season. In addition to the team’s offensive results in their time together, as a younger coach with progressive ideas who had traveled a similar path to Keefe through the OHL ranks, McFarland seemed like a stylistic and philosophical fit, at least on the surface. However, it should be kept in mind McFarland — along with Dave Hakstol — was a Mike Babcock hire last offseason.

The good news for the Leafs is that there is so much offensive talent on the team that finding a capable coach to manage the offense and put together a high-end power play — featuring the likes of Tavares, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Rielly — shouldn’t be too tall of an order. Baseless speculation on social media has already picked up around lifelong Leafs fan and Toronto native Bruce Boudreau’s possible interest in the role.

Like everything else, such decisions are in a holding pattern until we find out the fate of the 2019-20 NHL season. McFarland may have a Stanley Cup playoff run to coach still.

Statements from Paul McFarland, Sheldon Keefe

“Paul has been a great member of our staff and I look forward to continuing our work together through to the conclusion of the 2019-20 season. Normally this type of move would be done during the off-season, but given that these are far from normal circumstances, we are in full support of Paul’s desire to pursue this position in Kingston and gain more experience as a head coach.”

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe

“I want to thank Kyle, Sheldon, and the entire Maple Leafs organization for their professionalism and support through this process, as well as the opportunity and experience offered to me as part of the hockey club this past season. Ultimately, I made this decision for my own development as a head coach and I am honoured and excited about the opportunity to help develop an exciting group of young players in Kingston. I still remain 100 percent committed to the Maple Leafs organization, its staff and the players for the remainder of the 2019-20 NHL season and Stanley Cup playoffs.”

– Paul McFarland