Craig Berube has been named the 32nd head coach in Maple Leafs history.

According to Darren Dreger, Berube’s new contract in Toronto is four years long, locking him up through 2027-28.

Berube owns a career record of 281-190-72 – spanning the Flyers and Blues organizations – and made the playoffs in five of seven years before he was dismissed 28 games into his eighth season. Most notably, his Blues team won the Stanley Cup in 2019. In Berube’s four other playoff seasons, his teams won one series.

While we could dig through the Blues’ numbers under Berube and the Flyers’ before them, he has never coached a team even remotely similar to this Leafs squad’s top-end talent and overall makeup. How the new coach and player group will mesh is the question.

When the Blues won the Cup, they ran a deep, four-line team with a big and mobile top four on defense, relying on forechecking and grinding through games as their identity. Over Berube’s tenure in St. Louis, the Blues strived to be greater than the sum of their parts while lacking elite, high-end talent, especially up front.

When the Blues won the Cup, Ryan O’Reilly led the team in regular-season scoring with 77 points. As every reader knows, Auston Matthews just produced a 69-goal season in Toronto. The only star forwards Berube has coached in the middle of their prime years were Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek on the Flyers. Even then, Berube has never coached a player who has scored 40+ goals or 90+ points, and I don’t believe it is because Berube has neutered his players offensively.

Berube’s Blues were traditionally a heavy forechecking team that ground through games. The reality is that the roster gave them little choice otherwise; it wasn’t skilled enough with high-end talent up front to play a run-and-gun style or lean on its offensive attack. They managed games through consistent, 60-minute efforts where they ground opponents down.

It’s fitting that Berube coached both the Flyers and Blues, knowing he lists Ken Hitchcock and John Stevens as two of his biggest mentors. In 2020, he told The Athletic:

“I’ve been around Hitch a lot of my career — as a young player, junior and pro, and with the coaching ranks. I learned a lot from Hitch about how to handle players, being on guys about competing and working hard and team play. That’s a real important side of it all, building a team, roles for each player and what you expect.

Johnny really showed me the ropes of what it is to be a coach and the process of it all — video, meetings and how to run things. You always have to learn the ropes of how to do something, right, and I think he probably taught me that better than anybody. Those two guys were obviously very important for me as a young coach.”

Hitchcock said the following of Berube:

“When I knew it was going south, I would just send him a text, ‘How’s it going?’ and about a minute later, I’d get a call. I just told him, ‘You’ve got a great feel for the game.’ He’s very much a feel coach. He knows what he knows, and he believes in it. His greatest strength is he can grab the team back quickly. He will not let the team and the principles and the mechanics, he won’t let it slide. He’s relentless in getting the team to play the right way. There’s lots of coaches that are astounding at Xs and Os, but from a commitment to work and give effort, his greatest strength is that he never lets the team slide.”

Stylistically, Berube is something of a 180 from Sheldon Keefe, who was level-headed and very much a coach who rode out the percentages of his players regressing to the mean. Berube is more fiery, outwardly passionate, and will make more judgment calls. If nothing else, it will serve as a jolt for a Leafs team that endured long stretches of staleness and routinely got off to slow starts in the regular season (which left them out of the division race by the end of November).

Looking back over the past few years, in particular, the Leafs dropped a bunch of games to bottomfeeders in the league. Halfway through last season, for example, Keefe’s Leafs were 2-5-2 against the quartet of Ottawa, Chicago, Buffalo, and Columbus. We’re generalizing to some degree, but a consistent reason why is that the Leafs often came out and played like the outcome was predetermined. Part of the hope with Berube in charge, one would think, is a more consistent effort game-to-game and more of a push for accountability in those situations.

Berube’s bread and butter is holding players to account and creating clear expectations for every player, whether they’re at the top of the roster or 23rd in the pecking order. Reading through his interviews over the years, this one in particular shed light on his coaching approach. Berube was asked about getting the defense back on track at the end of last season, his first as Blues coach where they didn’t make the playoffs:

“Mindset more than scheme-wise. Systems are systems. Everyone has their own system and it’s about a mentality for me. Being aggressive, anticipating, working together, but the forwards are a big part of it, too. I felt like our forwards didn’t do enough to help our ‘D’ out. There’s a lot of times, so it goes both ways, and again, that’s when I talk about team. You can’t just (say), ‘The ‘D’ weren’t good. ‘It’s not like that. It’s everybody. Goaltenders, defense, and forwards. It’s all working together and playing together and helping each other out. It’s not about the schemes. It’s just about a mindset. And it’s about playing for each other and that’s a team. You care about your teammate. You don’t want to hang them out to dry. If you turn a puck over, how hard are you working back because you turned it over to help that guy out now? And I didn’t feel that we had enough of that.”

It’s often stated – and there is truth to it – that there is only so much an NHL head coach can do or change systems-wise. Teams and players generally understand the 1-2-2, 1-3-1, 2-1-2, or whatever the coach wants to draw up on the board. It’s more about buy-in and consistency in the approach, which is where Berube excels.

That said, I think hiring assistant coaches who are tacticians, especially on special teams, is imperative. After St. Louis won the Cup, the Blues’ power play was highly successful, ranking third, sixth, and second before dropping to 22nd and eventually dead last when Berube was fired. In the meat of the Blues’ successful years, Marc Savard and Jim Montgomery were running the power play. When Montgomery left to coach the Bruins, the man advantage dropped off steeply.

To me, this is a good hire if the Leafs support Berube with the right assistants to perform the heavy lifting on the special teams and strategic side of the game. Berube won’t allow players to take shortcuts, and he’ll be all about the team and playing for the greater good – a welcome change for a group that’s often felt like the inmates were running the asylum. That is Berube’s strength – he is a motivator and a team builder. He won’t allow the personal agendas to slide and fester.

It will also be important for Berube to navigate the media properly in Toronto. There are all sorts of clips flying around of Berube candidly calling out players and critiquing individuals through the media. While the fans love the catharsis, the truth is that it can grow old in a hurry in this market, given the reach and depth of the coverage. That’s not to say it should never be done – and certainly, Keefe often shied away from it, most recently following a brutal effort in Game 4 – but Berube will need to pick and choose his spots a little better than he did in St. Louis.

The next question is what this hire will mean, if anything, regarding an impact on player personnel. Certainly, Berube likes an aggressive forecheck, and one would think individuals such as Matthew Knies and Bobby McMann – big, fast, and physical – will be welcomed members of the lineup. Pending UFA Tyler Bertuzzi is another effective forechecker who fits the profile of a player who makes sense in terms of the identity Berube wants to establish.

Of course, all eyes will be on Mitch Marner’s situation. Truthfully, I think Berube would be an interesting coach for Marner. He is a talented and productive player, and Berube has the ability to press buttons and push him for more. But I can appreciate that there is a contractual situation to sort out first and foremost (which we will write about separately in the days/weeks to come).

On defense, Brad Treliving clearly likes big, physical defensemen. Berube had quite a few of them in the lineup in St. Louis, including pending UFA Joel Edmundson, who won a Cup with Berube and contributed positively for the Leafs in the most recent playoffs. Simon Benoit and Jake McCabe clearly fit the bill as well. This is not to say Berube doesn’t like any skill on the backend, as the Blues’ blue line also featured the likes of Torey Krug, Alex Pietrangelo, and Jay Bouwmeester. Former Leaf Carl Gunnarsson played a big role on the Blues; nobody would classify him as physical.

Sheldon Keefe’s firing and Berube’s hiring is the first major domino since Brad Treliving was hired as GM. Something tells us it won’t be the last this summer.

The Other Candidates

Todd McLellan interviewed for Leafs head coaching position

Some thoughts on the other head-coaching candidates who have either interviewed or were potentially available to the Maple Leafs:

–  The Leafs have reportedly interviewed Todd McLellan, and it’s important for them to go through a proper process versus interviewing one person and calling it a day. That said, there would be more than a little irony involved if the team that can’t get over the hump hired the coach who infamously hasn’t gotten over it either.

McLellan has coached really good Sharks, Oilers, and Kings teams. They played with structure, and his top players performed under his tutelage. The Marleau – Thornton – Heatley line was arguably the best line in the league under McLellan’s watch, but in the playoffs, the Sharks couldn’t push through. Although McLellan led them to back-to-back Conference Final appearances, the team ultimately went to the Stanley Cup Finals only after he left (and still didn’t win). He would be a good regular-season coach, but just like the rest of the organization in Toronto, he would’ve had playoff demons in his head, under his bed, and in his car that he would’ve needed to defeat.

–  Rod Brind’Amour would be in a similar boat if he were ever available. Since the Hurricanes hired him, they are third in the league in points. His Canes teams play with structure, consistency, and detail. I would argue they are the best team in the league at faceoff plays, which is the direct result of coaching. His Canes teams have regularly been among the best on special teams, particularly on the penalty kill (Carolina has boasted the best cumulative penalty kill percentage since Rod was hired). The Canes PK is aggressive, coordinated, and disciplined, principles Brind’Amour instills. That would be a welcome addition for a Leafs team maligned by penalty-killing issues.

On the flip side, Brind’Amour’s Canes teams have regularly struggled to score in the playoffs against good teams, and they have essentially only won series against relatively weak opponents. Last spring, they went to the Conference Finals by beating the New York Islanders and the New Jersey Devils. When they met Florida, they were promptly swept, and Brind’Amour strangely stated afterward that it wasn’t a sweep (they did, in fact, lose four straight). After losing this week, Brind’Amour lamented playing against the best team in the league as if the path to the Cup would ever be easy. Their first-round opponent this spring was again the New York Islanders. The Leafs do not benefit from playing this calibre of playoff opposition in their division.

The Leafs would be an excellent regular season team under Brind’Amour, without a doubt, and he’s never coached a player as talented as Auston Matthews. I’d argue Joseph Woll is also more talented than any goalie he has coached in Carolina. He’s a good bench boss, and the hope would be that with elite talent and a second job opportunity, he would improve in some of the playoff situations. But he does strike me as someone who can get caught up in the randomness of the playoffs instead of taking a no-excuses approach and busting down the door.

–  In my view, Craig Berube makes the most sense as long as the Leafs flex their financial muscle to support him. Berube is experienced and accomplished; he will walk in with instant credibility and respect and demand accountability. I think he needs support from a tactical standpoint, particularly regarding special teams. There’s no cap hit when it comes to hiring a coaching staff. Marc Savard has run a successful power play under him before, and one of Berube’s mentors, John Stevens, has coached Cup-winning defenses in LA and, most recently, in Vegas. For my money, Berube-Savard-Stevens would be a homerun coaching staff. The attention would then shift to Treliving to build out the team properly, most notably by addressing the defense and center positions and finding a proper tandem partner for Woll.