Subject to change, virtually at any hour, Sheldon Keefe remains the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who definitely are in search of a new general manager and, who knows, could be looking for someone to replace No. 1 bottle washer Brendan Shanahan.
For a club that finally won a playoff round, albeit only to be shredded in five games under the claw of the Panthers, the joy ride was short-lived in Toronto. The Leafs went directly from the standard “OK, what happened?!” to “Yikes, what’s going on?”, an uncomfortable spot for any franchise.
The look is all the worse, of course, when it’s an Original Six club still searching for its first Stanley Cup title since 1967. Even worse for an Original Six club, led by Shanahan as team president, that had no backup plan in place if it chose to fire general manager Kyle Dubas or if he chose to leave rather than sign a contract extension.
Dubas, in a candid news conference on the Monday following the loss to Florida, expressed some family-related concerns about coming back. Then, by Friday morning, a decisive Shanahan sent him packing, for a GM to be named later. All that on the heels of Dubas reportedly following his earlier news conference with a request for a pay bump as part of a new contract.
Sure sounds all kinds of crazy, but, well . . . Toronto.
Keefe, again, remains on the job after steering his squad through that Round 1 win over Tampa Bay. No easy task that, by the way, even if the so-called smart money (betting is allowed now, in case you’re the guy in Flin Flon who missed the memo) had the Lightning figured for an early exit.
Tampa Bay is still a very good team, even if a bit dog-eared around the edges of its elite personnel. Keefe deserves credit for steering the Leafs to the win in six games and, perhaps of greater importance, finally erasing the franchise black eye that came across 19 years of not winning a playoff round.
If Keefe is ultimately cut free, the Leafs will join five clubs that entered the weekend in search of a bench boss. For anyone keeping score, here are the vacancies (accompanied by the last guy left standing): Anaheim (Dallas Eakins); Calgary (Darryl Sutter), Columbus (Brad Larsen); New York Rangers (Gerard Gallant); and Washington (Peter Laviolette).
If cut free, Keefe should be a legit candidate for any of those openings. In his four years running the Toronto pressure cooker, he rolled up a 166-71-30 record, a dazzling .678 points percentage. The top three working behind benches right now are the Oilers’ Jay Woodcroft (.683), Keefe (.678), and the Bruins’ Jim Montgomery (.676). Keefe is highly marketable, and any town would offer him an easier work environment.
During Shanahan’s news conference following his decision not to retain Dubas, he repeatedly praised his ex-GM, who had been on the job nine years. Shanahan also acknowledged the pressures, up and down the organization, faced in Toronto. It is undeniably an intense market, full of passion and anger, much of the latter fueled by the 56-year Cup drought.
During the Lightning series, Dubas was caught on TV in a heated verbal volley with fans in Tampa. It underscored the pressures of the job and, yes, we all have our limits. But like players, constantly reminded to avoid getting into it with the paying customers, team executives have to tune out the craziness. It was not a good look. Firing a water bottle to the back wall of a suite, a la Cam Neely, may be good drama, but not so firing invectives back at the fans.
By Shanahan’s telling, his decision to dismiss Dubas was in large part connected to Dubas expressing that he might not want to return. As the rest of the week played out, he said, Dubas’s agent reconnected on terms of a new deal, and then Thursday night formally expressed his desire to come back.
But it was too late. Shanahan had moved on, convinced by Dubas’s hesitation Monday that it was time for a change.
Even before Dubas was let go, his name began circulating as the top candidate to take over the vacant front office in Pittsburgh, where weeks earlier team president Brian Burke and GM Ron Hextall were dismissed. As of Friday afternoon, the Fenway Sports Group, owner of the Penguins, had yet to announce a hire.
An analytics devotee, Dubas would fit the FSG ethos, one that hasn’t delivered the best numbers of late along Yawkey Way. What he never answered in Toronto was his perpetual roster riddle, unable to come up with the franchise defenseman and goalie needed to win the Cup. Instead, he vastly overloaded on cap money across four forwards — John Tavares, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner — and time and time again his Leafs suffered for the deficiencies along the blue line and in net.
With Dubas gone, assistant GM Brandon Pridham, 49, has been minding the store in Toronto. Shanahan tried to make clear that business will continue as normal, and the Leafs will prep for the draft (June 28-29) while he’s out looking for his new GM. He said he’ll leave some key personnel decisions (such as whether to retain Keefe as coach) to his new GM.
But stay tuned. Shanahan is still calling the shots, but these days in Toronto, there’s no telling who could be the next to go.
College prepared them for the job
Craig Conroy, named Tuesday as the Flames’ GM, further solidified the broad base of former NCAA players now in charge of NHL clubs. He also joined ex-Bruin Jarmo Kekalainen, GM in Columbus, as an ex-Clarkson Golden Knight now with the keys to the shop.
As the weekend arrived, 17 of the NHL’s 32 GM slots, including the one held in Boston by Don Sweeney (Harvard), played US college hockey as part of their career journey to the front office.
The breakdown, by college:
Boston College — Bill Guerin (Wild).
Boston University — *Chris Drury (Rangers); Mike Grier (Sharks).
Bowling Green — *Brian MacLellan (Capitals); Rob Blake (Kings).
Clarkson — *Conroy (Flames); Kekalainen (Blue Jackets).
Harvard — *Sweeney (Bruins).
Miami (Ohio) — *Kevyn Adams (Sabres).
Michigan — *Kelly McCrimmon (Golden Knights).
Middlebury — Kent Hughes (Canadiens).
Northeastern — David Poile (Predators). Barry Trotz named as replacement.
Northern Michigan — *Don Waddell (Hurricanes).
Pace — **Chris MacFarland (Avalanche).
Providence — Tom Fitzgerald (Devils); Lou Lamoriello (Islanders).
Yale — Bill Zito (Panthers).
* — indicates played four seasons, per hockeydb.com
** — club hockey.
During his introductory news conference, Conroy, 51, duly noted the excitement that young players bring to clubs across the NHL and that he soon would like to infuse the Flames varsity roster with some enthusiastic youth. Sounds like a plan. Way easier said than done, of course, but beginnings are nothing if not aspirational.
Conroy also said he’d like to see Jonathan Huberdeau “bring that swagger” back to his game. The slick Huberdeau, 29, was the key piece the Flames received from Florida in the hurried swap last summer for Matthew Tkachuk. While Huburdeau’s production tanked, from 115 points the prior season to 55, Tkachuk again was one of the league’s dominant offensive forces (40-69–109).
A Canadiens draft pick (No. 123, 1990) prior to entering Clarkson, Conroy did not become an NHL regular until he was packaged into the 1996 swap in which the Habs sent Pierre Turgeon to the Blues.
Tops on Conroy’s agenda: naming the coach who’ll replace Darryl Sutter, with said replacement being the guy to tease that swagger back out of Huberdeau, who is about to start an eight-year deal that carries a whopping $10.5 million cap hit.
Roster changes over the years
US college players no longer were an anomaly on NHL rosters when Craig Conroy cracked the Blues or when Don Sweeney, drafted No. 166 in 1984, gained full-time work on the Bruins’ back line in 1989-90 (his lone trip to the Cup Final as a player).
The most significant change to rosters in the last 30 years, of course, has been the growing number and influence of European and Russian players, the latter of whom didn’t gain their freedom to come to North America until the end of the 1980s. Legendary Russian defenseman Slava Fetisov signed with the Devils for the same 1989-90 season that Sweeney made the full-time leap in Boston.
In 1989-90, Sweeney joined a Boston roster as one of eight regulars (minimum 50 games that season) who tracked to the NHL via US high schools or colleges. That group also included Bob Carpenter, John Carter, Dave Christian, Garry Galley, Bob Gould, Craig Janney, and Bob Sweeney.
The other seven regulars on that 1989-90 Bruins squad routed through Canadian junior squads: Ray Bourque, Randy Burridge, Cam Neely, Al Pedersen, Greg Hawgood, Glen Wesley, and Jim Wiemer.
The goalies: Andy Moog (46 games) and Reggie Lemelin (43 games) also were products of Canadian junior programs.
The lone Euros were Swedes Tommy Lehman (26 games) and Michael Thelven (40 games).
Fast forward 33 years, here is how the mix looked among the Bruins regulars (minimum 50 games) this season.
US college trained (7): Connor Clifton, Charlie Coyle, Derek Forbort, Trent Frederic, AJ Greer, Matt Grzelcyk, and Charlie McAvoy. Goalie Jeremy Swayman expands the group to eight.
Canadian junior trained (8): Patrice Bergeron, Brandon Carlo, Jake DeBrusk, Nick Foligno, Taylor Hall, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, and Pavel Zacha.
European trained (3): Hampus Lindholm, Tomas Nosek, and David Pastrnak. Goalie Linus Ullmark expands the group to four.
A noticeable absence on both Boston rosters: Russian-trained players. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov, added at this season’s trade deadline, stands as the lone exception.
Benn’s stunt invited trouble
Because he didn’t address it postgame, we were left only to wonder what was running through the head of Stars captain Jamie Benn with the cross-check that got him tossed only 1:53 into Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Golden Knights on Tuesday.
Benn collided along left wing with Vegas forward Mark Stone, with Stone tumbling at his feet just outside the Dallas defensive blue line. With Stone down, Benn best would have kept chugging, for what could have developed as a five on four. The Stars already trailed, 1-0.
Instead, Benn opted for a cross-check toward the side of Stone’s neck, while the latter was still flat on the ice. Your faithful puck chronicler has seen far more vicious two-handers, some unpenalized, but the stunt only invited trouble. And Benn got it: He was done for the night (cross-check/game misconduct) and tagged the next day with a two-game suspension.
Oh, and the Golden Knights bumped their lead to 2-0 during the five-minute power play, then made it 3-0 only moments after the power play expired. Game over. Final score, 4-0, with Bruce Cassidy’s Knights on Saturday night looking to convert their 3-1 series lead into a ticket to the Cup Final.
“We will live with the consequences,” said chagrined Stars coach Peter DeBoer, noting in his postgame news conference that he would not “pile on” Benn for the mistake: “It’s a heat-of-the-moment sport. I’m not judge and jury and I’m not going to play it tonight.”
Stone went 1-2–3 in the first two games and was a constant thorn in the Stars’ side. From afar, it looked like Benn calculated there was a chance he could put a vulnerable Stone, who has a history of serious back issues, out of the action.
When he finally talked to the media the next day, Benn’s spin was that the cross-check was unintentional, ostensibly a function of gravity, which fails both the eye test and the laws of physics.
The puck went down Friday night for the start of the Memorial Cup in Kamloops, British Columbia, with WHL Kamloops, OHL Peterborough, and Patrick Roy’s Quebec Remparts vying for the top prize in Canadian junior hockey. Have to wonder if someone gives Roy another shot behind an NHL bench. St. Patrick’s three-year tour (2013-16) coaching the Avalanche was remarkably unremarkable, but at age 57 the Hall of Fame goalie is still young enough that he could draw interest, especially if the Remparts win the Cup. The other coaches: Shaun Clouston (Kamloops) and Rob Wilson (Peterborough). The Bruins do not have a draft pick/prospect on any of the three rosters . . . The Bruins will hold their development camp in Brighton directly after the June draft in Nashville. The festivities will run Monday, July 3-Friday, July 7. Bruins rookie camp, the first sign of the new season, opens Sept. 13, with all the kids dashing to Buffalo that weekend for the annual prospects camp . . . Chicago will open its development camp June 30, which had Blackhawks fans hoping that it would be shifted from the club’s practice rink (Fifth Third Arena) to the United Center for a first look at junior phenom Connor Bedard (the presumptive No. 1 draft pick). However, the Blackhawks decided weeks ago that there will be no on-ice practices or scrimmages at development camp. Sentiment behind the move: Eager kids place too much emphasis on boosting their skating prior to camp, which in turn stunts their more vital offseason dryland training and overall summer rest and recovery. Those first Bedard looks will have to wait until mid-September . . . Ex-University of Maine Black Bear Dave Nonis, once the GM in Vancouver, also was hired in Calgary Tuesday as an assistant GM to Conroy and senior vice president of hockey operations. Nonis and Bob Beers were Black Bears teammates for a couple of seasons under coach Shawn Walsh . . . Good pal Chris Snow, long ago a Red Sox beat reporter at the Globe, also moved up another notch in the Flames’ hierarchy, adding the title of VP of data analytics to his existing assistant GM duties. Snow continues his courageous battle with ALS, now four years after a diagnosis that had doctors predicting he would survive some 6-12 months. They clearly underestimated #SnowyStrong . . . The Stars drafted Benn with the 129th pick in the 2007 draft. The Bruins originally owned the pick, but GM Peter Chiarelli shipped it to Columbus in the acquisition of Adam McQuaid. The Blue Jackets then wheeled the pick to Dallas some five weeks later. Of all players taken in the 2007 draft, Benn’s 362 career goals rank second only to Patrick Kane (451), who was the No. 1 selection . . . The Golden Knights answered their goaltending woes with 6-foot-4-inch Adin Hill, originally a Coyotes draft pick, added to the depth chart last summer via fourth-round draft pick to San Jose. His 4-0 win Tuesday in Dallas, his first playoff blanking, lifted him to 6-1-0 with an eye-popping .940 save percentage. Hill was born in Comox, British Columbia, west of Vancouver, and played junior for WHL Portland. Sound familiar? Neely was born in Comox and played for Portland prior to his NHL debut with the Canucks. But that’s where the connections end. The Neelys moved to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, when Cam was six months old and a relatively unknown 30-goal scorer with 212 career PIMs.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.