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Devils GM Says Sheldon Keefe’s One Major Shortcoming a Non-Factor

Hiring Sheldon Keefe is viewed as an overwhelming positive for New Jersey. However, GM Tom Fitzgerald overlooked one of his major shortcomings upon hiring.



New Jersey Devils
(AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)

Despite the excitement that filled the Prudential Center on Tuesday introducing New Jersey Devils head coach Sheldon Keefe, the elephant in the room couldn’t be ignored.

Keefe’s success as a head coach — at all levels — precedes him. He’s a champion in the American Hockey League. He led minor teams to multiple championships and deep playoff runs.

However, his postseason resume in the NHL doesn’t read as successful.

Keefe coached the Toronto Maple Leafs to four-plus regular seasons with a points percentage of .622 or better. He’s never had an early summer at any level he’s coached in, and he led the Maple Leafs to the playoffs in all five seasons behind Toronto’s bench.

Yet, regardless of the success he had with the Maple Leafs in the regular season, Keefe couldn’t coach Toronto out of the first round in four out of five postseasons and was a second-round exit the one time the Maple Leafs eclipsed the opening round.

Despite his shortcomings, Keefe isn’t looking back. Instead, he’s working toward overcoming the obstacle.

“Yeah, listen, it’s an obstacle for sure. As I say we’re bringing closure to the situation in Toronto. I’m excited for what’s ahead,” Keefe answered New Jersey Hockey Now when asked about his playoff shortcomings. “You know. Winning in the NHL is extremely difficult. Winning in general is extremely difficult. At every level I’ve been at before the NHL, I’ve coached very deep into the playoffs, won championships, and I have an expectation to have a short summer every single year. So when that doesn’t happen the way that hasn’t in Toronto, that drives me. But as I say, this is a fresh start. For me. This is a different group and a different opportunity.”

Asked Devils General Manager Tom Fitzgerald where Keefe’s playoff history ranked in making his decision to hire Keefe as the 31st head coach in franchise history.

Somewhat shockingly, it didn’t.

Fitzgerald’s decision to hire Keefe was seemingly based on his resume of success at all levels and how quickly he rose through the ranks as an NHL head coach.

“When I looked at Sheldon’s career, to be quite honest, the playoffs didn’t enter (the equation),” Fitzgerald explained to the media via a question prompted by New Jersey Hockey Now. “When you’re in the playoff round, five times, six times and you lose a game seven four of those times and a game five once and you get through to the second round… I mean, David [Blitzer] touched on the stats. They’re incredible. There’s only one other coach who’s gotten to 200 wins faster than Sheldon.”

As Fitzgerald mentioned, Blitzer made sure to mention Keefe’s accomplishments while introducing him to Devils media and fans. Three straight 100-point seasons, second-fastest NHL coach to 200 wins, and five consecutive postseason appearances.

It sounds all well and good.

Yet, Keefe’s shortcomings in Toronto were reinforced by Fitzgerald’s explanation that the NHL is a difficult league to win in.

“Let’s be clear. There’s only one winner every year, Fitzgerald said. “It’s hard. The NHL is a hard league, extremely hard [league] to win in. A lot of things have to go right. At some points, there’s a lot of random. When you get to overtime, you don’t know how a puck is gonna end up across that goal line and if you’re going to be on the winning side of it.”

There’s an argument to be made that the Maple Leafs’ lack of deep postseason runs is more on roster construction and Toronto’s top players failing to show up in a big moment. You could also argue Keefe struggled to find a way to get the most out of his top players.

Asked about what he’s learned from his time in Toronto, Keefe believes he’s a better coach today than he was yesterday.

“In terms of Toronto itself, certainly there are lots of things that I’ve taken away from that,” Keefe explained. “And you know, after five years and six playoff rounds, I’m a far better coach now than I was before I arrived in the NHL. But I’ve come in here to New Jersey excited to take on a new opportunity here. There’s young, hungry players that are here, there’s guys here that you look at. The young, exciting players that in their first opportunity won the first round and pushed through and excelled in those moments, but ultimately didn’t reach the goal. I’m excited to learn about them, learn from them, and then get to work, growing together as a group so that ultimately, we’re ready for whatever competition might come, no matter how high the stakes may be.”

Keefe certainly seemed refreshed to be in New Jersey while explaining why he couldn’t pass up the job with the Devils. His new crop of talent includes the likes of Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt, among other elite talent. To Fitzgerald’s credit, he hasn’t put his roster in the same financial handcuffs Toronto did which creates the flexibility to ice a deeper roster.

Perhaps that’s the difference that propels Keefe past the narrative.

Keefe survived Fitzgerald’s “gauntlet,” quickly landing on his feet post-Toronto. However, if Keefe doesn’t overcome the playoff narrative that follows him from up north, he certainly won’t find another job as quickly as he did with New Jersey.

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