After coaching change, Maple Leafs brass puts onus back on the players

Brendan Shanahan there to protect Kyle Dubas. Kyle Dubas there to protect Sheldon Keefe.

Less than 24 hours after firing head coach Mike Babcock — and triggering the move they hope and believe will bring improved, if not, optimized alignment to the Toronto Maple Leafs — management presented layers of support along the hockey operations hierarchy as it addressed the media in Arizona on Thursday.

Most notably, Shanahan denied the notion that Dubas has “spent his bullet” from the general manager seat, indicating that he still has full and complete trust in the soon-to-be 34-year-old roster architect, despite his failure to construct a roster that one of the winningest coaches in history could not have success with.

“That's not how I view it, that's not how ownership views it,” Shanahan said.

“We're in this together."

For his part, Dubas was willing to accept responsibility for Babcock’s firing. He said he was disappointed in himself for failing to bridge the divide and mend the philosophical disconnect between himself and the coaching staff.

With nine wins from 23 games to begin the season, ultimately it was the situation the Leafs find themselves in which has forced management’s hands. Shanahan said “you could almost see it in their faces” of players that they were without an answer, and that there was no longer confidence in the coaching staff to offer solutions.

There was not one moment that management decided that fortunes couldn’t be reversed and the disjointedness the plagued the team was beyond repair, they said. Instead it became abundantly clear over time that the decision hockey operations believes is best for the franchise had to be made.

Because of the sky-high expectations heading into the season, the pressure on Keefe — a coach with zero experience at the NHL level — is immense.

Understanding this, Dubas seemed to pay it forward by further insulating the coach he’s worked so hard to keep at an arm’s reach, stating that there will be growing pains as the Leafs adjust to a new system and a new direction.

“It's not an optimal time,” he admitted. “It's going to take some time and acquire some patience.”

With one of the worst records in the league seven weeks into the season after entering with Stanley Cup aspirations, it’s not like the Leafs have time to follow a significant learning curve.

But in spite of that, and the pressure to win, Dubas is confident this is the right decision.

He pointed to Keefe’s history of extracting the most from individuals and believes that’s the key to building a sustainable system, and a program that winds up being greater than the sum of its parts.

Dubas says he’s seen Keefe achieve this in junior and the American Hockey League, conveniently with many players that have graduated through the pipeline to the Leafs’ active roster. He’s confident Keefe’s influence will be the same at the highest level, citing his ability to communicate on the personal basis.

“Regardless of what the players are being paid, I've watched Sheldon and (seen) his ability to absolutely maximize the capabilities of each player.”

As they insulated both the architect and the new coach in front of the media on Thursday, in turn a challenge was issued to the players that, like Babcock, have not lived up to their end of the bargain.

It’s their responsibility, they suggested, to turn this season around.

"This is not an easy time. This is not a perfect time to make a coaching change. What I asked from them was solely their increased focus, concentration, work ethic, and the ability to be a little uncomfortable.”

Those responsibilities, and a new era of Maple Leafs hockey, begins Thursday in Arizona.

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