One day after the Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe, general manager Kyle Dubas took the blame for a partnership that failed to pan out as the franchise had hoped.
“I'm disappointed in myself,” Dubas said during a media availability with team president Brendan Shanahan in Arizona on Thursday, ahead of Toronto’s game against the Coyotes.
“Coming into the job [in May 2017] and knowing Mike was the coach, you certainly want everything to work out. Going through last season, going through the off-season, it was always my intention [to make it work]. I tried as best as I could with that and I’m disappointed in myself and only myself that it didn’t work out, that we couldn’t become simpatico on every single topic.”
Babcock released a statement via TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun on Wednesday that thanked fans and players while mentioning several people by name, including former Leafs’ GM Lou Lamoriello and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment CEO Larry Tanenbaum. He didn’t acknowledge Dubas or Shanahan directly.
It was Shanahan who flew to meet the Leafs in Arizona and hand Babcock his walking papers late Wednesday afternoon, one day after Toronto’s sixth-consecutive defeat dropped the club to a dismal 9-10-4 start on the season.
But the conversation surrounding Babcock and his job security appears to have started much earlier than this week, when enough losses finally piled up that Dubas and Shanahan felt there was no choice left but to let Babcock go.
“Even before we got into [this skid], you have discussions about the way the team is playing and the way that the team is operating and what’s the best path ahead,” Dubas said. “I think everyone wants one loss or one moment in a game that sort of pushed you over the edge. But I think it was just an accumulation of watching the group continue to play and evolve – on and off the ice – that led us to that point yesterday.”
“I just think that certainly from a player’s perspective, you could see the frustration in their eyes,” Shanahan added. “I really thought even in our last game that the players were working really hard but there was sort of a belief missing in them.”
Now the focus shifts to preparing the players to navigate a number of style and systemic changes. Dubas is prepared for those adjustments to take time.
“What I asked for from [the players] was just solely their increased focus, concentration, work ethic and the ability to be a little bit uncomfortable because we're going to go through some changes stylistically and with our systems,” Dubas said. “It may not look great at times, it may not feel great at times, but in the long run it's to get the group to play the way that it's absolutely designed to play.”
Despite how much the Leafs have underachieved, and the role Dubas has played in that as the team’s chief architect, he is far from conceding this as a lost season, or accepting that Toronto's players can’t still meet expectations.
“I don't have any issue saying that I have [a deep] belief in the group and the way that it's built,” Dubas said. “And I know that can be used against me if it doesn't go perfectly. I have a belief in the way that the team is built, and obviously I'm very biased about that and that's fine. I think they've shown enough in stretches what we can accomplish when we play the way we're absolutely capable of playing at our best.”
Dubas acknowledged this is “not an easy time, not a perfect time to make a coaching change,” but the Leafs didn’t have to go far in seeking out Babcock’s replacement.
Management elevated the 39-year-old Keefe from his post as coach of their American Hockey League affiliate Toronto Marlies and into the first NHL gig of his career, alongside the same staff of assistants in Dave Hakstol and Paul McFarland that the Leafs hired last summer.
But while Keefe is new to the NHL, he’s not new to Dubas, which likely explains why Toronto didn’t explore other options for Babcock’s successor.
When Dubas was general manager of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he hired Keefe midway through the 2012-13 campaign to pick up his faltering club. Keefe helped revitalize the franchise, and went on to win CHL and OHL Coach of the Year honours in 2014-15.
Dubas later became assistant GM of the Leafs, and in 2015 hired Keefe to be the Marlies’ head coach. He went on to lead the Marlies to the franchise’s first-ever Calder Cup championship in May 2018, and leaves the club with a 199-89-22-9 record.
And while Babcock and Dubas couldn’t get, and stay, on the same wavelength, Dubas and Keefe haven’t had that problem in their past.
“Sheldon and I have had some of the biggest disagreements and arguments I’ve ever had with anybody,” Dubas said. “But in the end we were largely philosophically and in terms of style of play always aligned and on the same page. And we’ve gone through a [mid-season] change like this in Sault Ste. Marie. So that made it a little bit easier.”
Dubas also believes Keefe’s unique ability to develop players while winning hockey games, which he’s done at both the OHL and AHL level, will serve the Leafs well through this transition, especially given the underwhelming start to this season for the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
All three forwards were recently signed to massive contract extensions by Dubas, but aren’t offering the explosive offensive output to match. Now that Keefe is in control, Dubas is hopeful he can steer Toronto’s sputtering stars in the right direction.
“I believe Sheldon can get the most out of them, regardless of what the players are being paid,” Dubas said. “I've watched Sheldon now in two different spots where we’ve worked together, and his ability to absolutely maximize the capabilities of each player and help them find their best. We talked [with the players] about the way that we want to play and I'm happy we were able to have [that discussion]. It's unfortunate, of course, but we’re all looking forward now to just getting rolling here.”
Dubas knows the decision to fire Babcock and insert Keefe will start being judged in earnest as soon as the puck drops on Thursday night. Although the results may not come quickly, Toronto’s front office is positive it made the right choice.
“Our major way of looking at it was, is this best for the long term of the group?” Dubas said. “Was this the best thing to do for our program? And [Shanahan and I] both agree that it absolutely was. We’re both fully aware of the process that we've decided to undertake and that there is going to be a few bumps along the way. There are going to be moments where it doesn't look great, where it doesn't feel great. And people will likely jump on that and say it doesn't look like it's going to be positive. We know in the long term it will be and we're looking forward to that for sure.”