Leafs fire Babcock, give coaching reins to Keefe

The struggling Toronto Maple Leafs have fired head coach Mike Babcock.

Leafs president Brendan Shanahan announced Wednesday that Babcock had been relieved of his duties, and that AHL Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe has been named the club’s new head coach.

Toronto has been one of the NHL’s biggest disappointments this season, stumbling to a 9-10-4 record. The Leafs have just one regulation victory since Oct. 26, and are in the midst of a six-game winless streak that features five losses in a row — including Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss at the Vegas Golden Knights. It was Toronto’s second game of a six-game road trip, and apparently was seen as a critical stretch by management.

Babcock has a career record of 700-418-19-164 with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Detroit Red Wings and the Maple Leafs. He won the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings in 2008, and he returned to the Finals the following season before losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

He was hired by Toronto in May 2015, after stepping down from Detroit, and reportedly signed an eight-year contract worth $50 million to become the highest-paid coach in NHL history at the time.

After missing the playoffs in his first season, the Leafs reached the playoffs for three straight years but failed to advance out of the first round — falling to the Washington Capitals in 2017 and the Boston Bruins in 2018 and 2019.

This season has been a dud so far for the Leafs. Injuries to center John Tavares and winger Mitch Marner were a factor, but the team’s offense (3.14 goals per game) could no longer compensate for its porous defense (3.43 goals against per game). The Maple Leafs had the sixth-best combined record in the NHL over the previous two seasons with a .625 points percentage. This year, they ranked 25th (.478).

Keefe, who has long been considered the heir apparent to Babcock, coached for current Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas with the Soo Greyhounds in the OHL, and he was hired by Dubas in June 2015 to coach the Marlies. The 39-year-old Keefe, a former NHL player, led the Marlies to at least the second round of the playoffs in each of his seasons there, and he won the Calder Cup in 2018.

Babcock is one of seven head coaches in NHL history with at least 700 victories. In the first eight seasons of his head coaching career, he made three Stanley Cup Finals and his team finished first or second in their division seven times. In the next eight seasons, his teams never finished higher than third in their division.

Despite all of the disappointment and controversy, the Leafs sit just two points out of the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, although the Philadelphia Flyers have two games in hand.

The firing of Babcock arrives on an interesting anniversary: The St. Louis Blues fired head coach Mike Yeo on Nov. 20 last year, turning their season around under new coach Craig Berube and eventually winning the Stanley Cup.

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