Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe joined Sportsnet Today with Ben Ennis to reflect on the 2017 rookie tournament and discuss the season ahead with the Marlies.
That we got real-ish hockey over the weekend must’ve felt like a starting point for you. Camp gets started on Friday, and you’ll have a better sense of what your team is going to look like at Ricoh. But what did it feel like to get back on the ice this weekend?
Sheldon Keefe: It was great. This event always is sort of the kick-off event of the pro season, if you will. It’s my third time doing this event. The previous two were held out in London and this was the first time in Toronto right at Ricoh Coliseum, so right in our home turf. It was exciting to get going. We’ve got some new staff members that have joined us through the summer in Rob Davison, the new assistant coach, and Will Sibley is a hockey operations analyst who is taking on a lot of the video work for us. We’re excited to get going. It’s a good event. I think it’s a productive event for the young players. Now we’ll get ready to be around and take in the Maple Leafs camp and prepare for our own camp at the end of the month.
A lot of people were excited about Timothy Lilejgren dropping to the Leafs in the first round of the draft. We got to see him a bit over the weekend. Mixed results, for sure. Rough first game on Friday. What was your evaluation of the young defenceman?
Keefe: I think, certainly, the second game was better than the first. I would speak for everyone, really — the whole group — in saying the second game was better. I made some comments after that first game, and in speaking with the team myself, I felt that the type of group we had in the first game was lacking some of the guys like Timashov and Moore and Dermott. Brooks didn’t play. Some of these guys are really talented offensive players and have some American league experience. I think that affects a player like Liljegren. He had to take on a lot of responsibility and do a lot of things. I’m sure there were nerves at play. I still thought there were some real bright spots in that game. On some of the plays that didn’t go his way, there was a lot more going on on some of those plays than what was his doing or under his control.
The group itself was not as organized as you would’ve liked to have been, and perhaps not as much talent offensively in the lineup. I think that affects a player like Liljegren. He had to take on a lot of responsibility and do a lot of things. I’m sure there were nerves at play. I still thought there were some real bright spots in that game. On some of the plays that didn’t go his way, there was a lot more going on on some of those plays than what was his doing or under his control.
We wanted to remain positive and get out and get after it in the second game. I thought he was really, really strong yesterday. He really showed the abilities that he has and just how he controls the play and the puck. There is a lot to like there.
Do you expect to have him this year? Or do you think he’ll head back to Sweden?
Keefe: I don’t think there have been any decisions made on that. I don’t expect that I’ll be getting a vote in that. These are the type of decisions that are made by the Maple Leafs and the organization and what is best for the player. That situation is in good hands and will play itself out over the course of camp, I’m sure.
How much of an adjustment to the smaller ice surface do you think it is for a guy like him?
Keefe: I think it is definitely an adjustment. There are different parts to the game. There are different sightlines, different spacing, different timing — all of those sorts of things. That said, in Liljegren’s case, I know he just came from World Junior camp held out in Plymouth. He had a lot of action and has played in international play before. I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as it is made out to be, but it certainly is not nothing. There are some adjustments to be made there, for sure. As we saw yesterday, he’s able to make those just fine.
How difficult is it for you as an evaluator to get a sense of what you’ve got considering the nature of that tournament? You’re taking a lot of guys who maybe don’t know each other and don’t know the systems and having them all play at the same time. Does it play into how you evaluate the players in a tournament like what you saw this weekend?
Keefe: I think so. You don’t want to put too much stock into it. As much as it is pro hockey and you’re always being evaluated every day — and that’s not just from the players but the coaches and everyone all the way through — and that’s the reality. That said, the nature of the event plus the fact that it is coming right out of the summer… we had one practice on Thursday afternoon and then we were playing Friday. That is another reason you don’t want to get too excited about someone or get too down on someone. It is the first of many days. Some guys peak early and then can’t sustain it. Some guys take a little bit longer but end up really coming on strong.
You look at the big picture for a reason. With a lot of these guys, you have a big book on them in terms of what they’ve done prior to that event. There are expectations of what they’ll do going forward, but you’re not going to think too much of it from an evaluation standpoint. There is lots of hockey left to be played.
This city is back to being Leaf crazy. It started last year, obviously, with the emergence of the team and how they performed. It helps the Leafs this year that the Blue Jays are having a bit of a down year in 2017. All of the focus is on the team. Does it feel different? Do you feel it going into camp?
Keefe: Yeah, definitely. There is a lot of excitement — not just around the organization, but you’re living in the area and you’ve got a lot of friends and family in the area. You can just tell the buzz is different. It’s exciting to be a part of. Coming into my third year and sort of being along that ride from the Marlies perspective has been fun to be a part of. This year is going to be exciting once again. There is a depth to the organization from the Leafs all the way down to what we’ll end up with. That remains to be seen definitively, but regardless — because of that depth — we’re going to have another good group to work with. It’s exciting times, definitely, in the city. There are lots of reasons for people to be paying attention. From our perspective, we’re excited to get going.
In your mind, is Travis Dermott NHL ready to start the season this year?
Keefe: I coach an American league team, so I always say it’s not right for me to make those determinations. The NHL people will make the decision when the players are NHL ready. But what I can say is Travis had an excellent season for us. He really came on strong after returning from a lengthy injury and played a lot of important minutes for us. He has a lot of great abilities and assets that allow him to play the way the Maple Leafs want to play and the way the NHL is going in terms of his ability to skate. That helps him offensively and defensively.
He is really good breaking the puck out and getting things moving out of his own zone. He has a lot of positive things going, but he’s still a very young player and it’s a deep group. Any player knows what they’re in for. It’s up to him to go in and earn his way.
What would you tell a player like that who is so close they can see the finish line? They can see the highlight of their career right around the corner and they’re going into camp with an NHL job being a realistic possibility. Would you tell him to embrace that? To not even think about it? What do you think the mind frame is that Travis should be in heading into Friday’s camp with?
Keefe: With any player, you try to make sure they remain focused on what they can control. In any player’s case, how you prepare off the ice and how you take care of yourself, and how you work in the gym and in practice and how you pay attention in meetings, and how you go out and execute — those are the things you can control. Everything else is outside of your ability to make any sort of change. You focus on that and your ability should speak for itself. That’s the road that Travis has taken and we encourage all of our players to take. You stick with that, if you’re good enough, good things end up happening. If you’re not good enough, you’ve got to keep working to get to that level. Just focus on what you can control and make it hard on them to make decisions.
Jeremy Bracco had himself a good season last year and he’s a guy you’re probably going to have on your roster with the Marlies this year. What have you seen from him? What are your expectations for the forward?
Keefe: He’s a guy that has the ability to break open a game at any particular time. He can be very dynamic and make plays that can lead to offense. That is a difficult thing to have today, that game-breaking ability. He’s the kind of guy that can be having a great game and be dominant, or he can even be sleeping through the game but has the ability to break it open with one touch of the puck. He’s got some great abilities. For us, we’re going to continue to focus on his overall game and what’s happening when he doesn’t have the puck. Making sure he gets stronger and faster; all things that seem to be pretty common with players coming out of junior — in particular, the ones who have had a lot of offensive success. It will be a process for him, for sure, but this training camp is a big one for him and he’s focused on making the Maple Leafs roster like all of the players should be.
Gain the experience that comes with being a part of this camp and transitioning to the professional level. Any of the guys that come down to play for us, it’s about us finding where they’re lacking in their game and continuing to work with them on that.