Sheldon Keefe met with the media on locker clean out day to discuss the season that was for the Toronto Marlies.
Your thoughts about this club, being in last place three months ago and how it compared to the finish?
Keefe: Obviously, three months ago we didn’t have a great feeling about where we were at, but that didn’t mean we didn’t believe in our people and the players that we had. We felt confident that we could turn things around. When things really hit rock bottom and we hit last place there in the division, there was a nice break in the schedule with five or six days without games. That gave us some time as a staff to really dig into where we were. We looked at some statistical metrics of where we were at and things that we perhaps could diagnose what might really be happening. In doing that, we actually found a number of positives with our group that we could build upon.
We just tried to create a picture for our team that would give them reason to believe and push. At the same time, our roster settled down a little bit and we found our way back. Within that, obviously management believed in our team and made some additional changes to try to help the group. We put ourselves in a position to succeed in the playoffs. When you look at that process, it was a challenging one and a difficult one for me; a first for me as a coach at any level in terms of having such a struggle midway through the season and having to find a way back. It was an important development opportunity for me and I’m certainly happy with how the players stuck with it. Leadership found their way. Young people stepped up. When we had bad injuries, some of our best hockey was played when we were really shorthanded. It’s a credit to the depth in the organization and the leadership and work that guys put in to turn things around and give us a chance to play in the playoffs.
You said you sort of did a deep dive and looked at a lot of things and saw a few things that were positive that maybe you hadn’t noticed, statistically. Can you tell us about one or two of those things?
Keefe: The number one positive for us was that – and I haven’t gone back to look at it – at that time in the season, despite being last in the division and one of the worst teams in the league from a points perspective, we were number one in the entire league in the number of goals we had given up at even strength. That was something to really hang our hat on. Our penalty kill was letting us down to that point. Our power play was good, but still, our penalty kill and the number of penalties that we had taken were really hurting our cause. And weren’t scoring enough at even strength.
Defensively, when you have something that you’re number one in the league in, and you’re a team where the guys come in and they’re sitting in a meeting and nothing is going your way, and all of a sudden you reveal to them that you’re actually elite at something, I think that really had our guys perking up a little bit. Like I say, our PK was letting our down, our differential in power plays and penalty kills was working against us, and we weren’t scoring enough at even strength. We took the positives, we identified the areas that were hurting us statistically, and we sought from there to improve on those areas. Our penalty kill really regrouped and went on a real nice run. We made some adjustments to it and identified and zeroed in on particular people to really tackle that. Our goaltending stabilized. A lot of things really happened at that time and we just built upon it.
In your meetings today, you’re meeting with players and some of them are looking at free agency and some of them are looking at maybe end of their career. Some of them are looking at whether they’re going to be in the NHL next year. How honest do you have to be with them in their assessment? Is that sometimes a difficult conversation to have with guys?
Keefe: They can be difficult. At the same time, I think players want honesty. You can’t help but be honest. That’s not just today, but all throughout the season. Certainly when the season ends, and there is a little less emotion involved, you’re just able to take the time to really assess where they’re at, identify what they’ve done well, and try to talk to them about where their situation might sit. Obviously, we’re understanding that we’re a small piece of it here and we’re not the voice. We don’t make the decisions of what happens from here for many of them. Certainly I don’t within my role.
You’re dealing with different players, as you say. Some of them are veteran players that are on AHL contracts that are expiring. You’re obviously dealing with them a little bit differently. And then you’ve got your younger players on entry-level deals that are part of the development program. You’re putting a plan in place for them to work at over the summer, and all of those kinds of things. We’re going through all of that, Kyle and myself. I think it’s a necessary piece. We did this at the start of the season as well, to sit down with each guy. It’s an important piece to spend time with people as much as you can. As the season gets going, it’s difficult to do.
It’s give and take. We try to give them honest feedback but encourage feedback at the same time. It’s an opportunity for me to grow as well. Players have very unique perspectives. In many cases, they see things that coaches don’t and they have a perspective that a coach can’t have. They can at least give you their sense of how they see things. Whether it’s their own situation or a situation surrounding the team or surrounding the player, you try to gain as much insight as you possibly can. The end of the season is a good opportunity for that. As you say, you’ve got some players that are free agents and those guys often are the guys that you get the most honest assessment from because they’re just going to speak the mind and tell you the truth. They’re usually veteran people who are confident in who they are and will speak openly, so you try to garner what you can. The younger guys are a little more guarded and everything, so it’s more about their personal development and things of that nature.
I enjoy the process. I think it’s an important step, as I’ve said, because guys will leave here now after a long season and take some time for themselves, but the summer will begin. That is a really important time for all players. In some cases for these guys, it’s more important than frankly anything that goes on during the season. It’s hard to recognize that, but when you’ve got young players that you need to make gains, the summer is when you can really get after it and really make changes to your game. Young players can grow a lot, having gone through it. It’s a critical time of year for players. Putting them down that path early is important. That is what today is about.
What did you make of Leipsic’s year? He had the injury, but when he was playing he put up a lot of points. There was talk that he could’ve been a candidate to get promoted, but the Leafs were healthy, so the door didn’t necessarily open for him that way. How would you assess how he handled everything?
Keefe: I think he handled it well. I think the injury came at a difficult time. He was having a great season. It’s a time when our team was just starting to turn the corner a little bit. Him being such an important piece, we lost him at that time and then the nature of the injury – a big hit, concussion – it had some lingering effects when he returned. We spoke a little bit about that today.
That said, I think he had some really dominant stretches of play this season that showed that his skill set and his abilities are beyond this level, but he also continues to be a guy that shows the other side, which is he can be careless or irresponsible with the puck. Continuing to find that balance to make plays and be dangerous offensively but not be careless is a challenge for him to continue to work at. On the other side of it, defensively, he shows he can kill penalties, he shows he can be responsible and hard to play against because he is smart and he gets in position and he’s got some edge and grit to his game, but then he can also be casual and unreliable defensively.
It’s time for him to take that step and recognize that need to find a little bit more consistency in his game. Without question, if you watched his season as a whole, you saw a player that looked like he didn’t belong in the league. It’s about him doing that more consistently and not having that other side reveal itself where he looks like a player that certainly does belong here and has warts in his game.
What did you learn about Kasimir Kaskisuo that you maybe didn’t know about him in the two-game stint that he had here last year?
Keefe: He showed that he is a very confident person. He was playing down in Orlando and frankly things didn’t go well for him. A lot of the reports weren’t always positive and the statistics… while it’s a different league and you can say that there are maybe more chances in that league that are given up and it’s a different type of shot, the reality is the statistics weren’t good and there have been a number of goalies that have gone down there and have done much better statistically, Garret Sparks being one. That said, he comes up here and shows that he is confident. He was confident when he was down here, even when things weren’t going well. He came here, and from the first day he arrived, in talking to him and asking if he felt ready, he claimed he’s been ready all along and was just waiting for the opportunity. He proved that that was the case. Credit to him.
Also, you have to pass credit onto the folks at Orlando – Drake Berehowsky and his staff – to stay on him and continue to work with him. Piero Greco put in a lot of time. When the scheduled lightened up here and there were opportunities for days off for us, Piero was on a flight down to Orlando and spending time there. Credit to Piero for the work he put in as well. It just goes to show how important depth is in the organization because you don’t know what’s going to happen. We had 11 goalies on our roster this season and six of them saw game action. We never thought we would be in a situation that we were where we’re bringing in a guy from Orlando to play, but that was the case.
He is a first-year pro. He got some terrific experience this year and there is lots to take away from this season in terms of why he would continue to work. You never know when opportunities come. He’s established himself now as a player capable of playing in this league, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be competition when training camp comes back around.
When you look at the second half of Antoine Bibeau’s season — he got the call-up to the Leafs and then comes back – what did you see from him that was different from maybe how he played at the beginning of the season?
Keefe: I found he had some struggles with confidence. He really had an up-and-down season. The season started tremendously for him. He was goalie of the month in October. As you say, he gets called up to the Leafs and does very well, and then he gets caught in a tough spot where he goes on a bit of a slide and then Sparks is injured. Kaskisuo comes in and really doesn’t look back and doesn’t give Bibeau an opportunity to get back in. That’s the nature of the business. We talked to Bibeau about that today and he understood that. Credit to him for the work that he put in and the positive attitude he kept every single day. Doesn’t mean he was happy about it. Doesn’t mean we don’t believe in him. We talked to him just about taking the positives out of the season, like the positive start. He had a tremendous summer last summer; he put in a lot of work and changed his body, was really focused, and he got off to a tremendous start for us. He got a win in the National Hockey League this year, so those are the positives that he’s got to continue to build upon.
He was just caught in a tough spot because we didn’t really give him much of an opportunity to respond and get back to it. We were working with him on getting his game back together in practices and off-ice and things like that, but the other guys just took the net and took the ball and ran with it. Credit to [Kaskisuo] for doing it, but Bibeau was stuck in a spot there where he’s going to have to get back to work this summer and come back in for a fresh start.
Who stands out on the roster as someone who improved maybe the most out of everybody?
Keefe: We talk about improvement from the start of the season. The guys I look at are Timashov and Moore. Those are two young first-year players that early in the season really struggled. A lot of it was through lack of opportunity. All of a sudden, going from top players on other teams to now the reality of playing lower in the lineup and really having to struggle for your minutes and compete for your minutes and be good defensively, I think a lot of that caught them off guard. They were not close, frankly, but they stuck with it and when injuries happened and they got more opportunity they showed they were ready for it and took advantage of those opportunities and were better players because of that down the stretch. When Kapanen, Leipsic and these guys come back in the lineup, they get shuffled down a little bit and I thought they were better players because of that. I think they leave now with a much better understanding of what it takes to play every single day and to be reliable and competitive. Those guys stand out in terms of improvement. I know Timashov ends up out of the lineup late in the playoffs here and a lot of that is attributed to Carl Grundstrom and his arrival and how he played for us, but I think both players leave here with a better sense of what they need to do.
Andreas Johnsson is a guy who, from start of the season to finish, really did a number of great things for us. He was very reliable for us. I don’t necessarily look at it as improvement because I think it was always there. He just needed to adjust and really get comfortable, but he is just a terrific young player that just does so many things really well. Very low maintenance. You tell him something once and he goes out and he does it. He executes at a high level. Very competitive. He has a lot of the ingredients that a lot of players need and that young players need. We are very happy with his development and how things moved for him. I think he had that. He is a guy with more professional experience than others coming into the season and he showed that.
You look at Dermott and Nielsen. Both guys come a long way during the season. Dermott got off to a great start, had to fight through an injury and returning from that, and struggled at first but found his way back. Nielsen had an up-and-down season that resulted in him playing some of his best hockey at the hardest time of year in the playoffs.
There are a number of cases when focusing in on the young players. There are a lot of things to be happy about with the development of the young players. When you talk about the young players, it’s interesting that you end up losing sight of a player like Kasperi Kapanen, who is only 20 years old. Because of his pedigree and his ability, you forget the fact that he is still in the development stage here. He also improved quite a bit this year. Took on quite a bit of responsibility, learned to play on the penalty kill for the first time in his life. Those types of thing are important. This is what the American Hockey League is for – to be able to add dimensions to players’ games and Kapanen is a case where I think it was important that we do that. He took that responsibility and ran with it, and took it with him to the NHL.