Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe joined Leafs Lunch on Tuesday, discussing the Marlies advancing to Round 2, the play of the team’s rookies, and the development of Travis Dermott and Frederik Gauthier.
If you were to give us a big picture on how Round 1 went for you, what you liked that your team and who stood out, what would you say?
Keefe: The first thing we liked is how we responded at different times.
The first chance for a response with a little bit of adversity was losing Game 1. With these short series, any time you get behind can be challenging for you, obviously, if you don’t stop the bleeding. To respond after getting shut out in Game 1 and getting six goals in Game 2 was real big for our team. We responded very well.
Coming back home here in Game 3, we didn’t play nearly as well as we did in Game 2 yet we still found a way to win the hockey game.
Now we’re playing against a real tough Albany team and trying to put them away and we played what I thought was our best game of the season when you look at the first 60 minutes previous to the triple OT. Those 60 minutes were real good for us and we probably deserved to finish that thing off well in hand. The goaltender was great and kept them in the game.
Now you’re playing in OT, and despite the fact that you’re in control of the game, it could go bad for us in a hurry. Our guys stuck with it and found a way. That response at different times throughout the series was real good, real positive and encouraging for our group.
How have the young guys adjusted to playoff hockey?
Keefe: I think it’s gone well. I thought, through that first round, we looked at some of the stronger performances we got and it came from some of our younger people, particularly on defence. Travis Dermott was outstanding through the whole series and played against their best people all the way through. Andrew Nielsen, I think, is playing some of his best hockey of the season right now. Having him be a reliable player who can play a regular shift at even strength and on the power play is real important. It kind of rounds out our defensive core.
Those guys played real well, and then we’ve got young people all through our lineup up front. Gauthier, I thought, played some of his best hockey of the season through the first round. Trevor Moore and Dmytro Timashov contributed and give us real good minutes. Brendan Leipsic has continued to be good for us. Kapanen came in and made his presence felt as well in a short stint with us.
You can’t ignore the effort of our veteran people as well. Colin Greening was excellent. Steve Oleksy and Andrew Campbell did their job as well. I think it was a good team effort. That is what is really encouraging.
Andreas Johnsson is one guy who hasn’t been mentioned very much, but he’s a young guy playing his first year in the American Hockey League and he’s been reliable for us all year. He doesn’t get mentioned a lot because he just kind of does it every day.
A lot of good people have stepped up. Then, of course, Kaskisuo steps up in goal with Garret Sparks going down with an injury. He spent most of his year in the ECHL and comes into some tough circumstances and does the job for us. A lot of encouraging signs for our team, certainly, but we know we’re going onto a tougher challenge here against a Syracuse team that is going to be ready and we’re going to have to be ready just the same.
You mentioned Dermott’s name. There is a lot of speculation with the Leafs going into next year. How close do you think Dermott is to playing in the NHL?
Keefe: I always say it’s not my job to make those determinations. There are NHL people with the Maple Leafs who will make those decisions. Our job is to try to make him better every single day and to challenge him and to continue to work to get better and to put him in situations that are going to challenge him.
When I say challenge him, that’s both in terms of giving him lots of opportunity and different looks with different players. He’s responded to all of those. In terms of what his future is, that’s not up to me to decide. What I can say is he has been a terrific player for us. When I look around at players that we see in the Eastern Conference that we play against evert day, I don’t know that there is a better 20-year-old defenceman that is playing in our league. That is a really encouraging sign, obviously. He’s got a bright future. We’re fortunate to have him. He’s a pleasure to work with.
The Goat has four points in four games. Looking forward to next year, we don’t know if Brian Boyle will come back. The hope is that Frederik Gauthier can be the future fourth-line center for the Maple Leafs. Just talk about his maturation as a guy that was very raw when you first got to him, and where his game is now.
Keefe: I think he’s played some of his best hockey right now. He got an extended stint with the Maple Leafs this year and did well. I think that the experience served him well in terms of whether you know what it is he needs to do and where he fits and the fact that the organization believes in him.
When he’s been down here with us, we’re trying to encourage him to recognize and understand what his foundation is defensively and the things that he needs to bring to fill that role and do that every single day. Be hard to play against, be good on faceoffs, be good on the penalty kill, and the other side of it for us is we’re trying to add some dimensions to his game and be able to put him in more offensive situations. He’s been playing with Brendan Leipsic and Kapanen has joined that pair since coming down here. Try to put him in more offensive situations and encourage him to carry the puck. Try to put him in spots where he can use his speed.
For a big guy, when he gets moving in the open ice, he can really skate. That’s what he has really brought to our team here – some speed through the neutral zone. He backs the defence off and he gets us set up in the offensive end. I think that’s where his success has come in terms of collecting some points.
That’s real positive and encouraging. I don’t think his foundation and who he is ever going to change, but if we can add a few more dimensions and confidence offensively, that’s another element in his development that he can continue to work at. We’re happy with the steps that he’s made there.