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Ex-Maple Leafs bench boss Sheldon Keefe joins Devils: Report

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After a sincere farewell to the team and its fans, Sheldon Keefe will try to stick a pitchfork in the Maple Leafs the first chance he gets with the Devils.

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As predicted, Keefe was not out of National Hockey League coaching work for long. Less than two weeks from being fired by Toronto — his three straight 100-point seasons eclipsed by his and the team’s playoff failures in elimination games — Keefe is to be announced as New Jersey’s head coach, likely Thursday. Multiple sources indicated the hiring late Wednesday, with TSN’s Darren Dreger reporting he’ll likely get a four-year deal that will include the two years the Leafs owed him on the remainder of his contract. Keefe didn’t comment, but told the Sun’s Steve Simmons he was excited about his new position.

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That extension was approved by Toronto general manager Brad Treliving as a gesture of confidence in Keefe when Treliving replaced Keefe’s long-time employer Kyle Dubas. Keefe posted a two-minute video after his firing, a conciliatory message to the Leafs for a four-year gig he called “a dream come true for a kid from Brampton.”

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He thanked players, fans, management, ownership, mentioned the media and took full responsibility for the playoff setbacks. Now the opportunity will come to prove to doubters in those quarters he can build a sound 82-game product and carry it beyond one or two rounds of the Stanley Cup tournament.

The 43-year-old Keefe will take the job that his replacement in Toronto, Craig Berube, interviewed for earlier this month with Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald. While Dubas’ Pittsburgh Penguins also missed the playoffs, Cup winner and Team USA Olympic coach Mike Sullivan is still highly regarded there.

Keefe certainly has a great regular-season resume, a .607 winning percentage, second only to Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour in league history among the top 80 coaches in overall victories. He was the first in Toronto franchise history to have a hat trick of hundred-point campaigns, yet couldn’t alter a series of spring setbacks despite offence-laden lineups at his command. When the Leafs lost in seven games to Boston earlier this month, it was the seventh time in eight tries dating back to predecessor Mike Babcock that the club was a first-round casualty.

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In Keefe’s tenure, Toronto lost four deciding matches in best-of-five and best-of-seven series, while defeating Tampa Bay in six games 2023 and losing to Florida in five in the second round.

In joining the Devils, who let go veteran Lindy Ruff in March and did not retain interim Travis Green, Keefe takes the reins of a group that unexpectedly missed the playoffs with a record of 38-39-5 for 81 points in the Metropolitan Division.

The Devils roster is topped by five young point producers aged 26 or less; Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, Timo Meier and the Hughes brothers, Jack and 19-year-old defenceman Luke. Goaltending will be their biggest challenge heading into the off-season.

On Tuesday at the Leafs news conference to introduce Berube and talk about his motivational strengths, Treliving was adamant that Keefe did his best in that area to get the club to buy into playoff-style hockey. They did for the last three or four games in coming back from 3-1 in the series only to lose Game 7 in overtime. One of Keefe’s biggest regrets will no doubt be getting less-than-desired results at crunch time from the highly paid Core Four, especially Mitch Marner who has the quartet’s worst playoff numbers.

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But circle the first game of the Leafs-Devils season series when the schedule come out in late June. Keefe will be the first former Leafs coach since Paul Maurice in 2008 to return to work, not counting Babcock’s aborted comeback in Columbus last year, to have a shot at redemption. Maurice thrived in his return to Carolina, Winnipeg and beat Toronto last year with the Panthers.

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On exit interview day in Newark in April, Fitzgerald knew what he wanted to see from the team and the next coach.

“They got the message. We’ve got curious mindsets in that room. They want to get better and sometimes you’ve got to punch people right in the nose to realize, ‘Oh, this is reality.’ What we got this season, is what we deserved (missing playoffs for the 10th time in 12 seasons).’”

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Of the next coach, he said “I have specific boxes that I want checked. He has to be an excellent communicator, someone who wants to collaborate with all different areas of the organization and understands where I think the team needs to get to. Someone who will use the things at our fingertips, analytics for decisions or strategy, how we want to play, and sports science. Gauging where our players are at practice and what kind of practices we need. When we can push and when we have to pull back.

“Lastly, a coach who’s going to keep every player accountable and not just a handful of guys.”

Lhornby@postmedia.com

X: @sunhornby

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