3 reasons why Sheldon Keefe is right coach for New Jersey Devils

Sheldon Keefe
Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Sheldon Keefe is the new head coach of the New Jersey Devils, after agreeing to a four-year contract Thursday.

He was hired after recently being relieved of his duties with the Toronto Maple Leafs following yet another unsuccessful playoff run, resulting in their fifth early elimination in as many seasons. This year, the Maple Leafs lost in heartbreaking fashion following a Game 7 overtime goal, courtesy of Boston Bruins winger David Pastrnak.

With his move to New Jersey, Devils fans are still unsure as to whether he will be able to deliver the required change following a disappointing season.

This season, the Devils posted a disappointing 38-39-5 record and missed the playoffs just one year after their dazzling 112-point campaign and first-round playoff series win against the New York Rangers.

The Devils fired fired coach Lindy Ruff in March. Ruff returned to his former team, the Buffalo Sabres, earlier this offseason.

Here are three reasons why, despite his lack of playoff success, Sheldon Keefe is an excellent fit for the New Jersey Devils.

Related: Predictions for the conference finals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Devils need playoff berth – Sheldon Keefe can make it happen

New Jersey Devils' Sheldon Keefe
Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

If the Devils made the playoffs this season, it would be a different story. 

However, for the 10th time in 12 years, New Jersey missed the “Spring Fling” of Stanley Cup contention, all while possessing more than enough pieces to get into the dance.

To be fair to the Devils, the injury bug bit them hard and often. 

Star defenseman Dougie Hamilton played only 20 games before sustaining an upper-body injury and missing the rest of the season. 

Jack Hughes, Timo Meier, and Nico Hischier were all sidelined for more than 10 games each. That’s half of the top six up front.

With a superior level of talent, this team is expected to make the playoffs. Keefe has the proven track record to make it happen. In 349 games with the Maple Leafs, Keefe was 212-97-40 in the regular season. Pretty darn good.

It’s true – Keefe was behind the bench for all five of the Leafs’ disappointing playoff runs, with a series win against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2023 being the only time Toronto advanced past the first round.

But Toronto never missed the playoffs under his leadership. Not once.

Keep in mind – Toronto didn’t make the postseason for 15 years until Keefe arrived. While his playoff record may not be pretty to look at (16-21), his Maple Leafs (who were without Auston Matthews for most of the Boston series) were just one goal away from advancing for the second straight postseason.

Sheldon Keefe gets most out of young, offensive talent

Sheldon Keefe
Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

When Keefe took the reins in Toronto in November of 2019, he inherited a squad brimming with youthful talent, ranking as the fourth-youngest squad in the NHL with an average age of 26.08 years.

Under his guidance, the team has consistently clinched playoff berths since that season, boasting a dynamic trio of budding stars. 

When Keefe entered the scene, Matthews was a fresh-faced 22-year-old. Mitch Marner was the same age. William Nylander, who this season signed an eight-year contract extension with the club, was only 23. 

Fast forward to 2024, and the Devils find themselves in a similar situation. They’re among the League’s youngest teams, with an average age of 27.12 years. 

Anchored by promising talents like Jack Hughes, Dawson Mercer, Jesper Bratt and Hischier, they mirror the trajectory of Toronto’s young core, hinting at the potential for similar success in the years to come.

Related: Early offseason signs point to Steven Stamkos staying with Tampa Bay Lightning

Newark isn’t Toronto, and that’s good thing

With his move to helm the Devils, Keefe carries with him some baggage from his tenure with the Maple Leafs. 

“I didn’t get it done in the playoffs. I didn’t help push our team over the line and deliver. I accept responsibility for that. No excuses. That’s the job and I didn’t get it done”, Keefe admitted in his seaside farewell address to “Leafs Nation” on May 9. 

The weight of expectations and intense scrutiny in Toronto contributed to the pressure Keefe faced. The “playoff choking” narrative has followed the Maple Leafs relentlessly, as anything short of total success is dismissed as another blunder and waste of immense talent. They haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967 and reside in the a hockey-mad media market.

However, in New Jersey, Keefe is away from the spotlight of an Original Six team with massive expectations. 

Next season’s outlook is good, but the Devils’ top priority is a return to form. 

The “line” that Keefe must push his team over is far less daunting than in years past. And he’ll be under far less public scrutiny.

That’s a good thing.

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