Sheldon Keefe joined Leafs Hour with Ben Ennis and JD Bunkis to discuss Justin Holl’s NHL debut, Travis Dermott’s play since the call-up to the big club, the play of his goaltending tandem in Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard, and the development of Timothy Liljegren in the first half of his rookie AHL season.
You’ve had a hand in a lot of guys that are in the NHL right now — a lot of the guys that are having success. Which one is your favourite?
Sheldon Keefe: [Laughs] I, of course, will turn the game back on you and say, “They’re all my favourite.” No, it’s exciting when the players go up and you see them have success and you see them fitting in and having fun, and all of those kinds of things. Obviously, it’s their dream to play in the NHL. None of these guys dream of playing in the American Hockey League. When you see them move up and get those opportunities, you feel great for them.
Travis Dermott almost made this team out of camp and Mike Babcock said multiple times that if he was right handed, he probably he would have. So we expected him to be here. Justin Holl — can you imagine what must have been going through his head? 26 years old, making his NHL debut. He was in the ECHL. An emergency callup. It’s such a crazy scenario.
Keefe: For sure. Hollsy is a guy who has been here for three years with us. He joined us coming out of the East Coast Hockey League on an AHL deal. Kyle Dubas brought him in. Justin and I both arrived to the Marlies about the same time. It’s pretty special to see his growth and what he has had to overcome and the work that he has put in to develop from the East Coast league to an AHL contract and then earning an NHL contract.
It just really seemed like every season — almost every month — he was earning more and more respect within the organization. To be counted upon in a situation like this, it’s a great feather in his cap. To see him step in and perform on that stage, I’m sure, is a great feeling for him and a great sense of accomplishment. He earned. He’s worked extremely hard and been a great player and a great teammate here his whole time with the Marlies.
Garret Sparks was named the AHL goaltending of the month, and his counter part, Calvin Pickard, has been excellent as well. They are #1 and #3 in save percentage in the AHL right now. As much as there is a lot ot be envious about your position, there has got to be some challenges with two guys performing that well every night and deciding who is going to get enough starts.
Keefe: They’ve both been excellent for us. It’s been a great luxury for us. To have two goaltenders of that calibre in this league is very rare. It’s lucky for us to be able to rely upon that game after game. The AHL being what it is — in terms of scheduling, back-to-backs, all the travel and those kinds of things, with the games clustered so close together — it actually becomes a little easier, frankly, to share the net. There is not a lot of times where you actually have to make much of a decision. It has been a rotation of sorts through the whole season. I’m not sure where they sit now in terms of starts, but when they’re both here and healthy, they’re usually splitting the games.
It’s important to have two good goalies at the AHL level for all of those reasons I just described. Those guys have handled the situation extremely well and have pushed each to get better every single day. I think the results speak for themselves in terms of their talent and their preparation and the partnership they’ve formed together. They’ve both benefitted from it.
Leafs fans are very intrigued by the possibilities that exist with Timothy Liljegren. What can you say about his progression this season and the things he needs to work on and where he is at in his professional career?
Keefe: We’ve been really happy with Lily and how he’s progressed. I think he’s learning as time goes on here just how to use his hockey sense and his mobility and his skating — all of those kinds of things — to make him a good defensive player. A lot of young players, especially gifted offensive guys, think about offense and creating offense. That’s how they take over hockey games. He certainly has those abilities, but the area that usually needs to be developed most is how to use a lot of those things that make you great offensively in order to be a good defender.
We’ve talked about Dermott and we’ve talked about Holl — those are two of the assets that those guys have, which is they use their skating and their instincts offensively to be great defenders, to close early and take away space and defend in the offensive zone as much as possible. Lily has done a really good job of progressing in that area. We pair that now with the offensive skills that he has, and he’s spending more time on offense as he gets better defensively. It’s been nice to watch that.
He returned from the World Juniors recently and he’s been a little sick and banged up since then, but in terms of his ability to show that he can defend and show that he can do it against bigger, stronger, faster men at the professional level here in North America — it’s been fun to watch that.