Sports

Rangers could eye Sheldon Keefe if Maple Leafs move on

Regarding the Rangers, who are in a place they never could have anticipated just eight months ago.

1. So if the Maple Leafs, trailing the Panthers 3-0 and facing a second-round sweep Wednesday night in Sunrise, do go down without a substantial response, would general manager Kyle Dubas return on an expiring contract, and more to the point, what about the future of head coach Sheldon Keefe?

See where we are going here?

If the 42-year-old Keefe should part ways with the organization, he would presumably become a person of interest in the Rangers’ coaching search.

Toronto has been undermined by the team’s best players’ inability to be the team’s best players in the playoffs throughout Keefe’s four-year tenure. The Maple Leafs have been too talent-oriented while attempting to patch the grit issue. All of that might sound familiar.

In the end, that might be disqualifying for the coach whose team went 0-7 in potential series clinchers over four years before finally taking out the Lightning on their second try in Round 1 for the franchise’s first series victory since 2004.

But Keefe has experience dealing with marquee players. There is structure in Toronto. He has experience under the spotlight with wattage a hundred times greater than the one in New York.

And, guaranteed, he will become a much smarter coach with Igor Shesterkin as his No. 1 rather than the conglomeration of Freddie Andersen, Jack Campbell, Ilya Samsonov, Matt Murray and Joseph Woll with which he has worked in Toronto.


Sheldon Keefe coaching the Maple Leafs during Game 3 against the Panthers on May 7, 2023.
Sheldon Keefe coaching the Maple Leafs during Game 3 against the Panthers on May 7, 2023.
USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

2. The season’s greatest mystery is how, instantaneously after being traded and only instantaneously after being traded, did Sammy Blais become the player GM Chris Drury coveted and the Rangers needed when the winger was acquired from St. Louis in the Pavel Buchnevich exchange in July 2021?

Blais was not only the type of player the Rangers needed two summers ago, he is exactly the type of player the Rangers need now.

Somehow the Blueshirts keep coming up on the wrong side of this reel.

There was a difference in opportunity when Blais was part of the Feb. 10 deal for Vlad Tarasenko and Niko Mikkola and a difference in circumstance. The Blues were purging and out of the playoffs, much like the Blueshirts of 2017-18 except without a Letter.


Sammy Blais (l.) returned to form with the Blues after being traded back from the Rangers.
Sammy Blais (l.) returned to form with the Blues after being traded back to the team from the Rangers.
AP

There was no pressure when Blais, who had spent much of the past 15 months rehabbing after P.K. Subban wrecked his knee, reported to St. Louis. His ice time increased from 9:38 per to 14:36. He went from playing on the fourth unit to a top-six spot with Brandon Saad and Braden Schenn as linemates. He averaged 1:35 per on the power play.

After failing to score a goal in 40 games this season and for the 54 games that comprised his entire Broadway run, Blais recorded nine goals in 31 games under the Arch and will represent Canada in the upcoming World Championships.

The Rangers wanted Blais to claim a top-six spot. He opened training camp on the right with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. But he could not keep up. There was no player in whom Drury had more of an investment given the controversy over the Buchnevich trade.

The Rangers gave Blais a spot on the second power-play unit for a spell in November and December. It did not work. Nothing did. Blais tried, he was physical, but just could not create an impact. His ice time went down, his confidence wavered, he was scratched six times in a 21-game stretch and then he was traded.

And immediately became the player the Rangers could have used against New Jersey and could use next year and the year after that and the year after that.

3. Speaking of which.

In the 13-day period beginning July 17, 2021, Drury added four forwards with grit, sandpaper and a mean-edged approach that everyone agreed the Blueshirts desperately needed.

There was a trade for — and an immediate extension of — Barclay Goodrow followed by the acquisition of Blais, the free-agent signing of Dryden Hunt and the acquisition of Ryan Reaves.


The Rangers' Barclay Goodrow (l.) fights the Devils' Kevin Bahl (r.) during Game 5 of the first round on April 27, 2023.
The Rangers’ Barclay Goodrow (l.) fights the Devils’ Kevin Bahl (r.) during Game 5 of the first round on April 27, 2023.
Bill Kostroun for the NY Post

All but Goodrow are gone, and at a juncture where the Rangers once again need more forwards such as Goodrow — who stood in there and gamely fought the gigantic Kevin Bahl in an effort to inject some life into his moribund squad in Game 5 — there is a very good chance that Goodrow himself will have to be sacrificed on the altar of the flat cap over the summer.

And the process of finding guys who will make the Blueshirts a harder team to play against will have to begin all over again.

Yes, there is Will Cuylle on the horizon, and that seems to be a saving grace.

4. Here’s an interesting one.

Before acquiring Patrick Kane, the Rangers power play was operating at 23.1 percent.

After the deal, and not including the two games that No. 88 missed toward the end of the season, the Rangers power play operated at 23.1 percent.

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