Sheldon Keefe joined Leafs Lunch to preview this weekend’s rookie tournament. Discussion topics include William Nylander and Mitch Marner playing center.
Jamie McLennan: How many different scenarios of lineups have you gone through? I know coaches like to overanalyze; they like to put things on the whiteboard. Was it simple as far as your lineup tonight and going forward or did you plug holes and unplug them and go over the five hour meetings?
Sheldon Keefe: We’ve got sixteen forwards, and ten defencemen. We’ve got a lot of different combinations. We’ve got three games in three nights. We’ve put together a little bit of a plan as to how players will move in and out of the lineup throughout the weekend. There’s been a number of combinations. I’ve worked with management and other people around the organization to get things in place and make a plan. It’s always subject to change, of course, but we like what we’ve got today. Really, anyone not playing today will get in tomorrow… pretty good rotation of guys that will get in each night.
Jeff O’Neill: What do you tell the guys to kind of be calm out there? It seems sometimes these rookie tournaments are scrambly, it’s choppy, it’s difficult to get involved in the game, as opposed to an NHL game, where guys are a little bit more in position. What are you stressing to your players to be more comfortable out there and just make an easy play?
Keefe: Well, you try to focus on things without the puck as much as we can. We think — especially with this group — it’s a very young group but there’s pretty high-end skill all the way through. We feel, if we get the puck, those guys are going to be able to just play and let their skills come out, but without the puck it’s very important; especially the work habits. We’ve gone through a lot of things here yesterday in practice and again this morning. It’s been a little overwhelming, I think, for them, but [it was] stuff we thought was important so they at least have a sense of where to go on the rink. We’ll get a feel for those guys who are able to pick up things quickly and hockey sense and what not. Really, it comes down to the work habits. In talking to Mike Babcock and what’s going to be important for the group all the way through – when the players leave here, and whether they advance to Leafs camp or go back to their junior clubs or join the Marlies, whatever is, they have a sense of the type of work habits that are necessary to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s ultimately what we’re working for. If they work hard, they should get the puck back. We expect the other team to be a little bit scattered as well. If we can settle things down and get the puck, we can let our skill players make some things happen. It’s going to be big, strong and older teams. It’s going to be difficult, which is what we want.
O’Neill: Do you find it surprising how much information some of these young guys need? You’re a former player. I don’t know what it was like for you growing up, but I can remember playing – I didn’t always do the right things defensively, but it was pretty simple. Just be in position, be aware, but it seems like the modern day player, they need so much information, and so much leadership in where to go on the ice these days.
Keefe: Yeah, I think that just seems to be where the game is at, even at the junior levels. Sometimes even at the minor hockey level. These guys have call come up playing on top teams in minor hockey. They have a lot of questions. I think they’re used to getting a lot of information, things coming at them. I think you still have some guys that just want to play; they just want the puck to drop and go and get at it, but definitely guys want information. We like to provide as much as we can and make it overkill in many senses, but we put it out there for those who need it. They can review slides; they can review video. For those who just want to play, they don’t have to pay attention to that and they can just go out and do their thing. You like to kind of touch every guy in a different way and hope that it comes together.
Bryan Hayes: You mentioned chatting with Mike Babcock; both of you new to the organization. How do you establish that cohesion between what he’s doing with the big club and what you’ll be doing with the Marlies?
Keefe: Mike’s been really excellent in terms of being open and involving me and really the entire Marlies staff in their meetings with the Leafs. I’ve had communication from the time I was hired; in fact, really even before I was hired, going through the interview process and everything. He’s been excellent; he’s been pretty clear, pretty apparent about what they want from the Marlies. I’m excited about that. To get a chance to learn from Mike, and what the expectations are and how they play. A guy like Mike has been around for so long and has worked with such great coaches in the Olympics and all these things; the success he’s had in the NHL. So many things that he does and he believes in have made their mark all around the game, especially at the junior level and people trying to copy and do things like that. You have a pretty good understanding of what it is he likes to do, but to be able to sit down and have him explain and understand the key points, and all of that, that’s been exciting. I’ve grown a lot as a coach already, and I know that that will continue to develop. I really like how there is a lot of cohesion between the Leafs at the Marlies, even all the way down to Orland and our younger players that are just going to go back to junior. With an event such as this, they are doing the same things. It’s going to be repetitive and they’re going to understand the messaging and what’s expected.
McLennan: Is your coaching style going to have to change a little bit with the difference between the A and the OHL? You’re new to it, you’re stepping into the dressing room kind of for the first time at the pro level. Is it something that you’ve thought about or are you going to kind of stick to your guns and just kind of grow with the group?
Keefe: I fully expect there’s an adjustment period. I’m fortunate to have Gord Dineen on our staff here, and really anytime something comes up or I’m a little uncertain I’m able to just throw a question his way. Whether it’s Gord, or Mike at the NHL level, I’ll be able to get a lot of things answered. I expect to just be myself. If I have to adjust along the way, I will, and an ability to get a feel around the room from players. I just want to be myself and coach the way I always have. Obviously, some of the things we’re doing are different to mimic what the Leafs are doing and what the expectations are and there are some adjustments to be made there. But in terms of my personality and how I expect to act, many things will be the same.
Hayes: Mitch Marner, taken fourth overall, obviously a lot of excited with him. He can’t play with the Marlies this year; it’s either the Maple Leafs or London. How much do you know about his game? What have you learned about Mitch Marner?
Keefe: My interactions with him, other than being on the opposite bench in the OHL – which wasn’t too fun – my interactions with him in Collingwood and just over the last 24 hours here, they’ve been really brief obviously. The skill is very apparent. There’s no secret that a player like himself that is able to do the things at such a young age in the OHL and make such an impact, his skill is very apparent. He wants to get better; he wants to work. I think he’s obviously excited about this event. It’s his first opportunity to play, but to do it here in London; he’s excited about that. He’s got a lot going on this summer; had an excellent camp at the World Juniors. We just want to let him play. I’ll get a chance to get to know him throughout the weekend, but a guy like him has got enough happening. You just want to let him play.
Hayes: Do you intend on playing him at center over the weekend?
Keefe: He’s going to play center tonight. We haven’t made any real firm decisions about what we’ll do beyond that. He’ll play center tonight, and I talked to him about it. He’s excited about that. He’s done it before; he’s comfortable with it. We’ll have him there and we’ll see how things go, but he’s a versatile guy. I’ve seen him, in the OHL, play all three forward positions. I’ve seen him spent a lot of time on defence on the powerplay. Very versatile guy; he can do anything. He’ll fit in at center just fine.
Hayes: Same conversation seems to apply to William Nylander. He has played the wing, but maybe you guys want to test him out at center? What’s the plan with William Nylander?
Keefe: Well, he’s a guy, again, much like Mitch and all these players for that matter – I’m trying to learn as much as I can about them. He’s a guy that’s played a lot of center. He played center in the Swedish Elite League, coming over to North America to join the Marlies He’s very comfortable. He’s a guy who really wants to play center, in particular because he gets the puck a lot. He wants the puck, he wants to be creative; he gets it in the middle of the rink a lot more. He’s well aware of the extra work that’s required to play center, and I’ve talked to him about that. We want to see that, those work habits really shine through here this weekend and give him a bit of a taste of it. He can take those habits into the Leafs camp. He really wants to play center. We worked on faceoffs here this morning, and for a guy that hasn’t taken a faceoff in quite a while he was quite impressive just working one on one with guys. I think he’s really excited and really anxious about a chance to show what he can do in the middle.