Craig Berube had options but chose Maple Leafs due to core

Craig Berube had options for his next NHL head-coaching job, but he chose to bet on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Toronto is a team in turmoil, reeling from another unsuccessful postseason run and faced with rampant speculation over the future of its star players -- including Mitch Marner and John Tavares. Berube sees potential in the Leafs just as they are, though, and it's why he decided to slide behind the bench again in a pressure-packed Canadian market.

"That was one of the attractions -- the core player group is great here," Berube said at his introductory news conference Tuesday. "That was definitely one of the attractions to come and coach this team. If you look at the roster, there's great players and it's a great opportunity to build a team that can move forward and become something ... not better but get over the hump a little bit here. And you want to work with good people, and [here are] great people who are thinking a lot like I do on how we want to build a team and how we want to play."

The Leafs hired Berube on Friday to replace Sheldon Keefe, who was let go on May 9 following Toronto's first-round Stanley Cup playoff series loss to Boston. It was the third time in four seasons under Keefe that the Leafs failed to advance in the playoffs, despite recording three consecutive 100-plus-point regular seasons.

The coaching change happened amid continued scrutiny around Toronto's core failing to deliver -- again -- in the playoffs. While Auston Matthews and William Nylander were both sidelined by injury throughout the seven-game series against Boston, Marner and Tavares were mediocre, producing three points and two points, respectively, in those seven contests. They're both entering the final year of their contracts and would be eligible to sign extensions with the Leafs on July 1. The question is whether Toronto can afford -- figuratively and literally -- to keep both skaters.

Matthews, Nylander, Marner and Tavares account for over $40 million of Toronto's current cap space, an untenable situation that has kept the Leafs from being able to sign more complementary players to support their efforts -- especially in the playoffs.

Berube claimed not to be concerned about Toronto's infamous core struggles or how the team has fared leaning on them up until now.

"That stuff is in the past, to be honest with you," said Berube. "I'm focused on now and the future. I'm going to obviously bring my own style here and [with] how we want to play the game. [GM Brad Treliving] and [president Brendan Shanahan] are onboard with that, and they think [similarly] to me. All I can do is focus on now and going forward, how we want to build the team here and how we want to look on the ice."

Ideally, that will be championship-caliber. Berube has experience there, having won a Stanley Cup in 2019 as head coach of the St. Louis Blues. That team was last in the standings when Berube was promoted to replace the fired Mike Yeo in November 2018, and Berube guided St. Louis to the franchise's first title. He remained with the Blues until being let go in December 2023 and waited from there to decide on his next coaching direction.

Berube is entrenched now with the Leafs on a four-year deal, and he is eager to get working on a retool that goes beyond just Toronto's highly paid core skaters.

"It's all about the team for me," said Berube. "Everybody's important on the team. Everybody's got to be used on the team. And they all have jobs and roles on the team and that's a real important aspect for me. We want to play a north game, we want to play fast, we want to be a heavy team. When I talk about heaviness, it's not running guys through boards and fighting and all that stuff. The game has changed. But you still have to be strong on pucks. You got to win puck battles. Those are priorities for me and just playing predictable and north and playing as fast as we can. Structure is huge, and we've got to have structure in all three zones and that's going to be a priority."

Treliving said he met with upward of nine candidates for the Leafs' head-coaching role. It was Berube's ability to hold players accountable and get the most of them that kept Treliving going back to him, though, and they share a philosophy on how to help the Leafs move beyond what has constantly held them back in the past.

"This is not about one, two, three, four or five people. It's about a team," said Treliving. "It's about the Toronto Maple Leafs. On the outside, you can use all the catchy phrases about 'core four' but it's about a team and the ability to build a team and the ability to connect with players. You've got to be able to push people into uncomfortable positions and into uncomfortable things, but you have to connect with people first. There has to be a partnership, a relationship and a trust. And presence is an important thing for me. You either have it or you don't; Craig has it."

The question now is how the Leafs will be reimagined within Berube's vision. Berube was noncommittal on who his assistant coaches might be going forward, and both he and Treliving repeatedly sidestepped direct questions about player personnel. The clearest message was that everything is on the table for Toronto in what they're trying to build for next season -- and beyond.

"You go through the roster of what we've got right now, with Craig giving me his thoughts, me giving him my thoughts," said Treliving. "But today is day one. We're going through the process of how we build a team. We're going to start digging in today. We have a staff to [assess] and look at and have those discussions with guys that are here and figure out where we go from there. And then most importantly, dig right into our roster and start to get to work on that."