Can Sheldon Keefe Take the Devils to the Next Level?

can sheldon keefe take the devils to the next level?

Sheldon Keefe John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t take long at all for longtime Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe to find a new employer after the Leafs dismissed him May. 9. Keefe was officially hired by the New Jersey Devils on May. 23, joining a team that in many regards looks a lot like the Leafs do – but Keefe could have much more success in his second go-around as an NHL bench boss.

Like the Leafs, the Devils have a young core of elite talent that takes up much of their salary cap space. Toronto’s much-hyped “Core Four” has more than $46.6 million in cap space devoted to only four players next season, but in New Jersey, the Devils have more than $40.9 million devoted to its top four forwards and No. 1 defenseman Dougie Hamilton. The Devils have approximately $18.7 million in cap space to augment their lineup this summer, but like the Leafs, they need to go out and acquire an above-average goaltender to work as a tandem with veteran Jake Allen. Some say a coach is only as good as their goalies allow them to be, and Keefe – armed with a four-year contract with the Devils – needs GM Tom Fitzgerald to supply him with solid netminding depth.

Keefe also needs good fortune on the health front to get the Devils back into the Stanley Cup playoffs. In 2023-24, New Jersey’s competitiveness was hamstrung by serious injuries to Hamilton (who played just 20 games), star center Jack Hughes (who missed 20 games), forwards Nico Hischier and Ondrej Palat (who each missed 11 games), and Timo Meier (who missed 13 games). Getting them all back at 100 percent will make Keefe’s life far easier than former Devils coach Lindy Ruff and interim coach Travis Green had it last season.

It will also help matters for Keefe that he’s now out of the fishbowl existence that comes with working in Toronto. This isn’t to say that the greater New York City area and its attendant media horde won’t put Keefe’s results under a microscope, but it certainly will be easier for Keefe to blend into the scenery and go about his business without dozens of reporters clinging to his every word. All that will matter is finding a way to leapfrog over Devils' Metropolitan Division rivals on Long Island and in Philadelphia, Carolina, Manhattan, Pittsburgh and Washington. Many pundits predicted New Jersey would finish at or near the top of the Metro this season, and those expectations will remain in 2024-25.

The Devils had an above-average offense this past season, averaging 3.22 goals-for per game. But Keefe’s big challenge will be to make New Jersey a significantly better team on the defensive front. Only four teams had a worse goals-against average than the Devils’ 3.43 goals-against total, and that can’t continue. After he does pick up another goalie, Fitzgerald might choose to use his team’s remaining cap space on an experienced blueliner, and if he does, Keefe will have many options on the back end next year. We know from observing Keefe closely that he does value having different lineup looks from game-to-game, and that’s not going to change now that he’s working for the Devils. The chemistry and competitive systems are going to be different in New Jersey under Keefe’s tenure, and he’s going to get at least a couple of seasons to implement his vision for an elite team. Clearly, his time ran out in Toronto after five seasons behind the Leafs’ bench, but a fresh start and a clean slate should invigorate him and the Devils players he’s responsible for.

The NHL’s coaching carousel is spinning like crazy these days, but Keefe now has a golden opportunity to show the hockey world he wasn’t the problem with the Maple Leafs. Keefe is fortunate to have a highly-skilled, super-fast group of players in New Jersey, and if the Devils can atone for this season’s disappointments with a strong regular season and a lengthy playoff run, Fitzgerald’s decision to hire him will be applauded by New Jersey fans and media alike. The ball is squarely in Keefe’s court, and the challenge of turning the Devils into a first-rate Cup contender is going to be his sole focus until further notice.

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