May 25, 2024

Sheldon Keefe after Maple Leafs’ exit – ‘Believe in myself greatly’

TORONTO — Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe addressed his future behind Toronto’s bench in the wake of yet another disappointing end to the season for his team — a group that, despite perennially underachieving in the playoffs, he has more faith in than ever.

“I believe in myself greatly,” said Keefe at the Leafs’ season-ending media availability Monday. “I love coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now more than ever, I believe in myself and the team and that I will win, and our team will win. I’ve been through a lot as a coach in my career to get to this level, and I’ve won a lot before coming here. My job is to continue to work to find solutions to improve as a coach and at the same time take accountability for the fact that we haven’t met expectations.”

Toronto’s management team wasn’t expected to speak with the media until Thursday.

The Leafs bowed out of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Boston Bruins with a 2-1 overtime loss in Game 7. It was the third time in four seasons under Keefe that the Leafs stalled in the opening round and was a step back from last season, when Toronto advanced to its first second-round berth in two decades.

The Leafs were down 3-1 in their series versus the Bruins this year and clawed their way back to force a Game 7. That display is what gives Keefe confidence that Toronto is on the cusp of reaching its full potential. Given the lack of results so far, though, the question is whether Keefe will be the one guiding the team to that pinnacle. He is signed to an extension that goes through the 2025-26 campaign and is preparing to see the Leafs past this latest downturn.

“It’s looking for solutions,” Keefe said of his mindset now. “This series we just finished is the best that I have felt about our group in terms of its ability to perform and come through in the playoffs and play a playoff type of game. In terms of our process, our buy-in, our physicality, defending, the patience that we showed throughout this series. To me, that is the recipe. It takes what it takes. I feel like our group took steps in that direction. It’s something for us to build upon while also continuing to search for solutions both at 5-on-5 and special teams.”

It has become a pattern for Toronto’s offense to crater in the postseason, and this year was no different. The Leafs ranked second in offense during the regular season (averaging 3.63 goals per game) and had the seventh-ranked power play (24%). In the postseason, Toronto was dead last among playoff teams in scoring (averaging 1.41 goals per game) and its power play was an abysmal 1-for-21.

The Leafs were hampered by injuries in the series, playing the first three games without star winger William Nylander and then losing Auston Matthews for one period in Game 4 and two games from there with an illness and injury, but the way Toronto’s strengths evaporated in the postseason is a reflection on not just the players but also the coaching staff.

Keefe knows that. Because even the Leafs willing their way into the series again only made the ending more bitter.

“That’s why it’s most disappointing to not get it done in Game 7, because we’re right there; you’re one shot away from getting through,” Keefe said. “And then the narrative changes to the Leafs have figured out how to play in tight games, be in tight games, come from behind, show fight; all things you’re excited about. I came out of Game 6 [winning 2-1] feeling about as good about the Toronto Maple Leafs as I’ve felt as a coach. So, to not get it done in Game 7 was quite disappointing.”

Toronto was also missing goaltender Joseph Woll in that decisive outing. It was Woll who backstopped the Leafs through both elimination games after taking over for Ilya Samsonov in the third period of Game 4. Woll was sensational, producing a .964 SV% and 0.86 GAA. He was projected to be in the crease Saturday as well, but an injury Woll suffered late in Game 6 forced Samsonov back into action.

Matthews did get into the lineup again for Game 7 after sitting out all of Game 5 and 6 with an undisclosed injury. The Leafs’ top center shed some light on what ailed him throughout the series, saying he got “really sick” after Game 2 and played through that in Game 3. It was an injury from Game 4 — which Matthews wouldn’t discuss further — that kept him from playing until Game 7.

“I took a weird hit [in Game 4]. Obviously, it was tough and really frustrating to watch,” he said. “I was fortunate to play in that Game 7, and I went out there and gave it my all.”

Toronto has another long offseason ahead now to consider what changes might be needed to finally break through its postseason ruts. That will surely be asked of general manager Brad Treliving and team president Brendan Shanahan when they take questions this week, and the subject of Keefe’s job status will surely come up. If there was some optimism from Keefe about where the team is headed, there was also a clear acknowledgement that there is more work to be done. Keefe intends to be the one doing it.

“We have a team that has expectations and has goals in mind, and when you don’t reach them, it’s not a great feeling,” he said. “My job as a head coach is to find solutions and chart a path for the group to come through and to succeed in the most important time of year. We haven’t done that. We feel a year ago we took a step in the right direction as a group [winning a playoff series]. I love the resolve that we showed in this series. But it was not enough, and that sits with me.”