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Message delivered: When NHL head coaches go public with criticism

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs Sheldon Keefe - The Canadian Press

Sheldon Keefe walked into the Maple Leafs locker room and did something he loathed.

Toronto's head coach addressed his team after a loss — a particularly ugly one at that. He called out his leaders, including captain John Tavares, by name.

The word "immature" was used to describe the bitterly disappointing performance. Keefe then met the media and repeated the message.

"Hated lots about our game," Keefe concluded in front of the cameras.

Taking criticism from the sanctity of the locker room's four walls into the public domain isn't an easy decision. Sometimes it's calculated, sometimes it's in the heat of the moment. Either way, the move comes with risk.

"You don't really know whether it's right," Keefe said once the dust had settled five days after that 6-3 defeat to visiting New Jersey late last month. "You're going to go off your gut."

In that moment back on March 26, the move was planned.

"I had made the decision I was going to speak pretty openly in the media about how I felt," said Keefe, who has previously walked back similar criticisms. "I tend to not say anything to (reporters) before (the players) have heard from me directly."

Coaches, however, have only so many kicks at that can. Rattle too many cages too many times and players might tune out the message.

"You walk that line," Washington Capitals rookie bench boss Spencer Carbery, a former Keefe assistant, said of going public. "That's part of being a head coach and recognizing the times where you've got to push some buttons."

Philadelphia Flyers head coach John Tortorella — never shy to share his feelings — has called out the group at various points over the last month. He healthy scratched captain Sean Couturier, questioned the team's intestinal fortitude for a playoff race, and apologized for his body language when asked about a goaltender's performance.

Tortorella also took a more measured approach, at least publicly, following Tuesday's embarrassing 9-3 loss in Montreal.

Vancouver Canucks defenceman Nikita Zadorov, who played for the hard-nosed Darryl Sutter with the Calgary Flames, prefers face-to-face conversations over being ripped in the media.

"I can handle it," he said. "We can have a conversation."

Zadorov added regardless of the forum, criticism comes with the territory.

"It's a hard business, it's a hard sport," he said. "You have to take some shots sometimes. And it's OK. It will make you stronger as a man, stronger as a person."

It's also not for everyone. That's where the "feel" aspect enters the fray.

"Some people like it, some people don't," Washington forward Dylan Strome said. "But coaches are pretty smart and they know what it takes to get their team going."

Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice went ballistic behind the bench last season during a game in Toronto. His team came back and won, made the playoffs, and went all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

It was far from the only reason, but the right button had to be pushed.

"You've got to know your team well," Panthers forward Sam Bennett said. "Some might be able to handle it, some might not."

Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning is the NHL's longest-tenured head coach. Star defenceman Victor Hedman said there's been moments when he's openly voiced displeasure.

"You feel a little bit embarrassed when it's gotten to that point," Hedman said. "You try to do everything you can to turn things around."

Keefe certainly got the desired response after unleashing his public dressing down.

Toronto has gone 6-1-0 since, secured a playoff spot for an eighth straight season, and is pushing Florida — the Leafs' likely first-round opponent — for second in the Atlantic Division with four dates left on its regular-season schedule.

"The art of being a coach and being a leader is to pick your spots," Keefe said. "Know the group and read the room."


The NHLPA released the results of the union's annual player poll Wednesday. Connor McDavid, to no one's surprise, topped a couple of categories.

The Edmonton Oilers captain took home almost 50 per cent of the vote as the forward players want on their team to win one game.

McDavid was also tabbed as the best stick-handler and finished second behind Boston Bruins captain Brad Marchand as the player "you least enjoy playing against, but would like to have on your team."

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who is trying to drag Pittsburgh into the playoffs, was voted the most complete player and finished second behind McDavid in the "forward to win one game" category.


Leafs star Auston Matthews became the first player in the NHL's salary cap era to reach 66 goals in a season Tuesday. The 26-year-old is looking to become the first NHLer to score 70 times since 1992-93.

-With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 10, 2024.


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