Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe

At the Maple Leafs’ end-of-season media availability, Sheldon Keefe addressed the reasons for a disappointing second-round series versus Florida, his faith in the team’s core group of players, and Kyle Dubas’ uncertain future.

Opening Statement

Keefe: We just finished meeting with 28 players individually and going through the regular routine to wrap up the season, set up the offseason for them, and get their feedback.

As it relates to the playoffs and the most recent series, the players shared the disappointment that I have in the sense that it was a missed opportunity. There was a lot of excitement around our team.

We don’t feel good about having to come in for a day like this. It is never fun. That is the one takeaway and the one thing we have certainly learned: whether you lose in the first round or the second round, it still sucks. It is not a good feeling.

That was pretty unanimous throughout the year. We felt we had more hockey in us. That said, clearly, it is very difficult to win in the playoffs. We learned that and saw that through ourselves here.

It is a long day, a day like this where we got through the process of meeting with everybody and sending them on their way, but it is a necessary step in the process. Now the offseason begins.


We all know about your close relationship with Kyle Dubas and the story of him elevating you into this role. His contract is up. Can you speak to what you hope to see happen there and the impact it might have on you either way?

Keefe: Kyle and I have a lot of history. I believe in a lot of the things that he has done here that have put us in positions to succeed. Of course, I am hopeful that it gets worked out, but it is, of course, out of my hands.

Out of respect for him, I have kind of left him alone to sort through the things he needs to sort through and let the process play out. My job today meeting with the players is to set them on their path through that.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Kyle not just for what he has done for this organization but also for what he has done for me personally in my growth and development as a coach. In terms of what happens here, it is out of my control.

There is a lot of talk about a lot of change in the offseason. What is your desire to remain with this team and keep the core of players that have been around here for a long time together?

Keefe: I certainly love and appreciate my position and the chance to coach the Maple Leafs. I have enjoyed every day of it. We have gone through a lot of different things, from Covid and all of the different things we have had to deal with along the way. Certainly, I love this job, this opportunity, and the challenge of navigating through and finding a way for our team to win a Stanley Cup.

In terms of our core group, I feel like we have grown a lot together. On a day like today, it is really tough to feel or sense any sort of progress, but I do feel we have made progress as a group. A lot of the disappointment that comes in losing is attached to the excitement you have for your team and the potential that your team has.

That excitement and potential — I believe — is still very much there. I think we feel that. I think we feel good about the fact that we were able to push through the first round, and yet you also sense that you are so close and the margin is so thin to get beyond that — to get from eight to four and ultimately from two to one. You feel close, and yet you recognize how far away it is.

Coming in today, and especially when spending time with the players, the last couple of days for me have been pretty lonely. There has been lots of reflection trying to understand what happened. There will be more time to do that. Getting in today, sitting with the players, and talking with them, you are right back in the fight again, recognizing that this is a disappointing day but we still have lots of belief in the group.

How would you describe your relationship with the core four? Are you getting enough out of them?

Keefe: I think it is a strong [relationship]. We have been through a lot. I think we are able to have very honest discussions as we did here again today and throughout the season. I think there is a lot of back and forth there.

Players have responded well at times when being challenged and pushed. I think we have seen growth in each of their games.

I feel like William Nylander had a career year this year — not just the numbers but also with how he performed. He is a guy we have been really pushing and trying to get to this level. I feel like he responded really well this season.

The others have set a really high standard. As I alluded to in the first round, they are a huge reason why we moved on. In the second round, they got a lot of really clean looks that they would expect to convert on. They didn’t.

A lot of things get magnified when the puck doesn’t go in. The process was there. They are going through a lot of different things to get to those chances.

In terms of what I am getting out of them, I am looking for body language. I am looking for work ethic. I look for competitiveness. I look for all of those kinds of things. You expect their talent is going to be able to convert and take over.

Sometimes, that is the case — certainly in Tampa — and in the Florida series, things dried up a little bit for them. We weren’t able to play long enough for them to find their way through that.

If the core stays together, what kinds of other players does the team need to get over the hump? Some of the additions Kyle Dubas made at the deadline were widely thought to be the right moves.

Keefe: I don’t get too involved in the player personnel decisions. I do believe the moves we made this season set us up for success. I think we saw that progress and growth. These overtime games and tight hockey games we were finding ourselves on the right side of — I don’t think that is by accident. The group coming together the way that it did was all a part of that.

It is really hard to pinpoint. When you look at the Tampa series, I thought our top players really carried us in a lot of ways — certainly offensively, and in a lot of other areas as well — while the support guys did their job. We found our way to grind through some tough situations and some competitive situations.

Now you move on to a Florida series, and you need a little bit more offense. You are trying to find a way to get that one more goal. As you go through the journey, you need to have as much depth and be as versatile as possible. I think that is ultimately the goal. You are trying to manage the group as best you can there.

I have great trust in the process of Kyle, the scouts, and the managers. I continue to.

As a coach, what do you wish you had done differently in the Florida series?

Keefe: Any time you lose, you are going to question a lot of different things or wish you had done this or that. I wouldn’t pinpoint one thing there.

Any time you are coaching a team, you are making hundreds if not thousands of decisions a day that impact everything that you are doing. You are not going to get all of those right. There are some I got wrong for sure.

You try to put your team in the best position possible. It is a lot easier to question or not feel good about your decisions if they don’t go right. I also feel as though our team was in a lot of good positions to be able to get on the right side of games.

We can talk about how close some of the games were and the chances that we missed. You are one goal away, or one less mistake away, or one more save. The margins are so thin, but it is easier to look at things that didn’t go your way and question them. I think it is important to trust my instincts and the decisions you make while recognizing that you are going to get some wrong.

I am not perfect. Like any offseason, I will look to improve and get better. That is really the goal. As much as you are challenging and pushing your players to always be growing, evolving, and improving, as a coach, I am no different.

If you compare your team to the Panthers team that beat you, is there something Florida has that your team is missing?

Keefe: It is a hard question to answer. I am not going to get too much into Florida specifically other than to say I think they are a lot better of a team than their record would show. They are the President’s Trophy winner a year ago. A player like Tkachuk coming in, and then they got world-class goaltending in our series — all of those things sort of change their fate a little bit.

We talked about the fact that the series was lost in the first three games. Inside those three games, it is really Game 2 that is a series-altering game. As much as you want to go out and win Game 3 and get both on the road, not getting one at home was tough.

Florida played hard. They defended well, especially later in the series. I thought the game was really wide open. Frankly, we weren’t expecting it to be as open as it was early in the series. The number of clean chances that we had — we didn’t have very many of those in the Tampa series.

We were unable to convert on some of those chances. You could just see their goaltender’s confidence growing from that. As the goaltender’s confidence grows to that level, a team’s confidence — a team that is already confident given they just knocked off Boston — grows even more. Our inability to convert on our chances early in the series clearly had a dramatic impact.

What do you want your players to take away from the season?

Keefe: You want them to take away the good feeling of finding our way through a very good Tampa team and winning the first round, which has been a major hurdle here for quite some time. Also, there is the sense and understanding of how difficult it is.

It does not get easier. When you knock off a team like Tampa — who sort of felt like the Goliath in our division and in the Eastern Conference — all of a sudden, a Florida team comes in that is building momentum. They come in ready and take it from you.

That is how hard it is, and yet you are right there. The process of going from 16 teams to eight teams to four starts to feel real and tangible. Just stay with it. No disruptions. Stay on the attack. Keep building that momentum.

I thought we went into the series a little too guarded and didn’t go out, attack it, and grab it. Credit to Florida because they did that. That is what you expect — two teams to do that — and that is where I think the growth is for our team as we continue to look at how you get to take the next step. That is part of it.

I think the players really feel that. That is really the message. Otherwise, it is giving them the feedback on their season — it is the full season, both regular season and playoffs — and sending them on their way.

As for myself and the coaches, we will go through our process and look to come back and be better.