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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If Mike Babcock laid a foundation for the Maple Leafs during his tenure as coach, Brendan Shanahan isn’t sure why the club wasn’t able to take the next steps to becoming a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
“I think that’s the magic question,” Shanahan, the Leafs president, said at the club’s hotel on Wednesday, a couple of hours after Babcock was fired.
“I feel that we have not played up to our expectations this year. I think that there are key elements and some attention to detail that has been missing often.
“We’re mistake-prone on defence, the attention to details aren’t there. Even the explosive offence our team was known for has been missing for a while now.”
It’s on the shoulders of Sheldon Keefe, who will speak to reporters at Gila River Arena in Glendale on Thursday morning hours before his debut behind the Leafs bench against the Arizona Coyotes, to get this team playing up to its potential. That was not happening for a while under Babcock, as the Leafs have been mediocre since the calendar turned to 2019.
Hired in May 2015, Babcock was instrumental in getting the Leafs well past laughingstock category, where they had seemingly taken up permanent residency. But 100-point regular seasons didn’t lead to playoff success, with the Leafs done in the first round in each of the past three years.
This season was supposed to be different, with young stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner under long-term contracts and the club resolute in its desire to build off playoff scars.
That didn’t happen. The Leafs, in the midst of a six-game losing streak, regressed to a level that just five points separated them from the NHL basement after games on Tuesday.
And while it’s easy to point the finger at Babcock, the players and general manager Kyle Dubas have to take a large measure of responsibility.
“There is a lot of work for Sheldon to do and there is a lot of work for the players to do,” Shanahan said. “They understand that. But we really believe in them. We believe in the players we have here, we believe in Sheldon in making this decision. We’re still optimistic we’re going to get it back on track.”
While the timing of the firing may have been a bit weird — Shanahan and Dubas were going to learn nothing new after the loss in Pittsburgh last Saturday, but Babcock was behind the bench in Las Vegas on Tuesday — the president and GM had seen more than enough.
Dubas should have addressed reporters on Wednesday, but will take questions on Thursday.
“Kyle and I are in constant communication,” Shanahan said. “It really came down to the last couple of weeks. We spoke in the last 48 hours. I just felt it was something that needed to be done and Kyle felt the same way.
“Seeing as I had been the one who hired Mike, I thought it was important for me to get on a plane (Wednesday) morning and fly here and face Mike and be with Kyle to tell him myself that we had made a decision together.”
The 39-year-old Keefe has had the success with the Toronto Marlies that eluded Babcock with the Leafs, leading the American Hockey League club to its first Calder Cup title in 2018.
Figure that he will relate better to the Leafs players than Babcock, who no longer could make an impact on the roster.
“If you look at Sheldon’s track record, the amount of players that play on the Leafs that have played for Sheldon with the Marlies, the job he has done in developing players for us that were some early draft picks, some late-round draft picks, and then just his success,” Shanahan said.
“You look at someone who has been in our organization for quite some time now and had a lot of success and won a championship and knows these players very well, it’s a situation where he has earned it.”
True, the players need a different message from the coach’s office. The situation got a little more urgent than that.
“We know how competitive the league is, we know how difficult it is each and every night,” Shanahan said. “When you think you know what the right decision is, you have to act on it. Waiting at this point would have just been the wrong thing.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019