Sheldon Keefe addressed the media on Monday in his first-ever scrum at the Scotiabank Arena as Leafs head coach, discussing the team’s freedom offensively and how it ties into its defensive commitment, utilizing the player development staff more in team practices, Auston Matthews’ two-way game, and his approach to back-to-backs with his goaltenders.
There seemed to be almost as many coaches out there as players. Can you lend us a hand as to what was going on and how important development was?
Keefe: Obviously, I come from a background where development is the priority. Performance, of course, is the priority here, but we believe that continuing to develop the players is important. For me here, obviously, I’m trying to start at stage one for what I would like to do and incorporate. I’ve had a lot of success with the Marlies in utilizing the resources we have around us, particularly the player development staff. They do a terrific job. They know what my expectations are in terms of working the skills within the structure. I just thought it was a great way to introduce some of the concepts we want our players to focus on offensively.
Matthews was talking after the game about using the God-given skills they have. How important is it for them to realize those skills they have and put them to good use — the Matthews, Marners, Nylanders?
Keefe: That is just it. We want our players to be thriving and using the skills that they have. While certainly there are God-given abilities, there is a lot of work that has been put in by those players to get those skills and refine those skills. Being able to utilize the different coaches and resources we have here we think can keep those skills sharp and thriving in that sense, and then bending it in with the structure we want to have to have our guys feeling good.
What was your take on Kerfoot’s fit on Johnson, and how will you adjust for those two games without him?
Keefe: Obviously, looking at it… First of all, knowing the type of player Kerf is — he’s never been suspended before, it shows he’s not that type of player — I think he recognizes he made a mistake in that particular play. He’s been pretty apologetic and pretty genuine about the whole thing, so the league had their say and we will just move on.
It has been a whirlwind for you. Have you gotten a chance to take stock of where you were and where you are now?
Keefe: The last couple of days, both the game day in Colorado — it was a little more normal pace, we didn’t have a morning skate or anything like that — and yesterday was an off-day, so I had a lot of time for those types of things. I also had a chance to connect with a lot of important people in my life that I hadn’t had a chance to get back to. Those types of things, I was trying to go through.
As a family, we’ve been through a long journey to get to this point, starting in the city of Pembroke with the Lumber Kings and the opportunity I had down there to learn how to coach and be a part of the community. You look back and you are certainly grateful to all of the people that gave you a chance.
Is there anything that you didn’t see coming or you hadn’t expected that you are doing?
Keefe: I wouldn’t say so. I came into it thinking there were going to be a lot of things coming at me for the first time that might be a little overwhelming. If anything, it’s been manageable. I’ve felt like I’ve been prepared and have been able to handle things as they’ve come. A lot of the credit goes to the staff and the players just for how welcoming they’ve been and how easy they’ve been to talk to and how supportive they’ve been with just kind of continuing to do what it is they do. All of those things have really helped my cause here and made it a lot easier.
People are talking about the team being reinvigorated. What is it that you are bringing that is changing things?
Keefe: Well, I think it is just a different voice in this case. The fact that we’ve tried to tap into the offensive abilities of the players and pairing with that the needs we have for them defensively, I think, has created a little more excitement and perhaps a little bit more willingness to give a little extra on the defensive side of it because they know they are getting some freedom offensively. It’s also just knowing that part of our defensive plan is to be good with the puck and no offense. That suits the group very well, I believe. The response has been positive.
We know about the club’s skillset. What does a stat like 26 blocked shots on Saturday tell you about your team?
Keefe: Well, it tells me that they’re committed. I thought we really worked. It wasn’t the prettiest game for us in a lot of senses, but at the end of a long road trip, with a different week for the team with the altitude and all of those types of things — and playing with the lead as long as we had to — the guys really competed right to the very end. The blocked shots, the battles on loose pucks, all of those types of things — the second and third efforts — I was really encouraged by.
Also, the fact that we are blocking shots, I think, is a sign that some of the adjustments we have made in the defensive zone coverage are helping us because we are in better spots to be able to be in those lanes. Those types of things we’re encouraged by.
Maintenance for Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen today?
Keefe: Yeah, both. In Morgan’s case, maintenance for him. In Freddy’s case, it was just the nature of the practice being what it was. We thought it would be more productive for him just to get a one-on-one goalie session with Steve Briere.
Do you have a position on back-to-backs in terms of goalies?
Keefe: My position on it is that I don’t think I have one position. I think each situation is unique and we will look at each situation as that and make an appropriate decision starting with this weekend.
What are your expectations for Auston Matthews this year? From the time he’s been drafted, we heard that he might be the second coming of Jonathan Toews or Anze Kopitar as a defensive guy. We’ve heard he can be one of the greatest goal scorers of all time. Do you have any thoughts on what his trajectory might look like this year?
Keefe: I wouldn’t put any limitations on anything. I think all of those things that you are suggesting are possible for him with the skillset that he has, the size and strength that he has, and then just the drive that he has to be great. I think all of those things tell me that he has the ability to do anything and everything that we give him.
Offensively, I think he has been really great here. Obviously, he’s scored consistently. I just thought he was on the puck a lot and won a lot of pucks back and was stripping players of the puck and giving himself second and third chances on offense. That is a lot of where his great defensive play is going to come in. Just using his size and physicality to defend the net — those types of things we’ll look at more with him. But he’s capable of being one of the greats for sure in all areas.
You mentioned you’ve worked on the spirit of the team. Is that because of what the team is going on now or is that just something the coach has to keep an eye on to work at all times?
Keefe: Fundamentally, I believe that is a priority and we want to make it a priority. We want to be a team that is thriving and we want an environment that is vibrant, so we are kind of trying to work on those things consistently — doing the things that as a staff we can control to set the environment. And then it’s just through how we communicate as players, and how we handle them, and how we handle our scheduling and our practice and those types of things, to keep it a situation where players are engaged.
Two wins on the road — how excited are you to get back here on Saturday in front of the home crowd?
Keefe: It will be fun. I am looking forward to that, of course. We’ve got a game on Wednesday that I am focused on here right now, but I am excited for that and my family is excited for it. I grew up in Brampton, so a chance to be on the home bench at Scotiabank. Of course, I’ve been there with the Marlies, but this will be different for sure.