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Devils hire former Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe

Less than two weeks after being fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Sheldon Keefe has been hired by the New Jersey Devils and given the task of turning a young team led by a superstar forward into a Stanley Cup contender.

Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald announced the hiring Thursday, saying Keefe would be introduced at a news conference next Tuesday.

“This is an exciting time, and I’m honoured to be a member of the Devils organization,” Keefe said in a statement released by the NHL team. “To have the chance to lead this young, dynamic team and to see the potential that can still be unlocked is all very attractive for me.

“I know this organization has a great history of winning and I look forward to getting started to work on leading them back to that level.”

Keefe is the Devils’ fifth coach since 2019 and third since March. They fired Lindy Ruff late in the season, replaced him on an interim basis with Travis Green and missed the playoffs anyway. Green left to coach the Ottawa Senators.

This is Keefe’s second head-coaching job in the NHL after spending the past four-plus seasons with Toronto, making the playoffs each time but winning just one series in the process. That led the Leafs to seek a new voice and hire Stanley Cup-winning coach Craig Berube.

Devils president and general manager Tom Fitzgerald stated in a news release Keefe rose to the top of his wish list after Toronto fired him on May 9.

“I was thrilled when he agreed to be a part of what we are building here,” said Fitzgerald, who played with the Maple Leafs from 2002 to 2004. “He is an excellent communicator, believes in collaboration, and will take what he has learned previously to make this team a Stanley Cup contender.”

Devils had 6th-worst save percentage

In Toronto, Keefe had Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to lead the team to five consecutive playoff berths. New Jersey has young forwards Jack Hughes and Nico Hischer, both No. 1 overall draft picks.

Keefe, 43, will now be tasked with trying to get New Jersey back into the post-season. The Devils, with the sixth-worst save percentage in the league, could not outscore their problems to make it this year after reaching the second round in 2023.

The Devils posted a 38-39-5 record this past season, a 31-point drop from the previous season. They had several injuries with the biggest being a torn pectoral muscle that limited defenceman Dougie Hamilton to 20 games. Defenceman Jonas Siegenthaler also missed time with a broken foot and a concussion. Star forward Jack Hughes missed 20 games, while centre and captain Nico Hischier was out for 11.

New Jersey also lost key faceoff man Michael McLeod in February after he was indicted in Canada on charges related to a sexual assault case in 2018.

Goaltending was the team’s major problem last year as Vitek Vanecek, Nico Daws and Akira Schmid were inconsistent. New Jersey got help late when it acquired Jake Allen at the trade deadline but the netminding remains an issue heading into next season.

Fitzgerald’s team has youth and speed. Forward Jesper Bratt (27 goals, 56 assists), Timo Meier (28-24), Hischier (27-40) and Hughes (27-47) are outstanding up front, while defenceman Luke Hughes had a franchise record 47 points (9-38) in his rookie season.

Ruff had led the Devils to a franchise-record 112 points in 2022-23, a 49-point improvement from the previous year. They finished second in the Metropolitan Division riding a career-best season by Jack Hughes. New Jersey rallied to beat the Rangers in seven games in the opening round and lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in five in the second round.

Keefe had 16-21 playoff mark with Toronto

Keefe’s win total (212) ranks fifth in Maple Leafs history while his .665 winning percentage (212-97-40) is first among all head coaches in franchise history.

Toronto posted a 16-21 playoff mark in his tenure.

Under Keefe, the Leafs’ 1,239 goals was second in the NHL to Colorado (1,241).

Before joining the Maple Leafs in November 2019, Keefe was head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, with whom he amassed a 199-89-22-9 regular-season record and led the team to its first-ever Calder Cup Championship in 2018.

The Marlies also won the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as AHL regular-season champions on two occasions (2016 and 2018).

 A native of Brampton, Ont., Keefe began his coaching and front-office career in 2006-07 with Pembroke of the Central Canada Hockey League.

The Lumber Kings to five consecutive league titles from 2006-07 to 2010-11 with Keefe serving in a management and coaching capacity.

He joined Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League in 2012, and the Greyhounds made three straight playoff appearances.

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