Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after practice on Thursday, discussing the decision to start Michael Hutchinson in the first game of this weekend’s back-to-back, the four-point games against the Buffalo Sabres, the team’s response to the coaching change, and more.
What has been the biggest difference between coaching an NHL team and an AHL team?
Keefe: There are more of you (the media). There is that. The planes and all of that kind of stuff is different, for sure, but we were treated very well with the Marlies. It’s not all entirely new in that sense. I played in the league at one time, too.
I’ve said it a few times before: It’s really felt like normal. It’s felt like hockey. The arenas are bigger, the crowds are bigger, and the attention around the team, of course. But it’s really felt normal, and that’s a credit to the players because they’ve made it feel normal. They’ve come in every day open-minded. They’ve listened and responded well. It’s made it feel normal.
Do you think it is easier to institute something fairly new with a group of NHL hockey players?
Keefe: I think their experience is certainly one part of it. The calibre of player, of course, is better at this level. The skill level is higher. In some cases, the hockey sense and intelligence is higher as well. You get all of that. That is one thing that is surprising: How quickly they’ve been able to pick up on things. It just speaks to the calibre of player and the type of team that we have.
Has there been a particular challenge so far — more information, getting to know new teams and systems?
Keefe: That has been the challenge for me — just sorting through routines and patterns of preparation we want to establish. That’s somewhat new here. The games mainly are all night games. The number of night games, the morning skates, the distance between the different cities as you’re moving around — those are the types of things I am trying to sort through and making sure I don’t get bogged down by those deals.
I am trying to learn from the assistant coaches that we have about what has been done in the past and what they are comfortable with. It’s really not just about me. It’s about making sure our entire staff and all of our players are operating at a high level. I’ve got to make sure all of that stuff is in order and that is going to take me some time.
Have you decided whether to start Frederik Andersen or Michael Hutchinson in the back-to-back and who is going to go Friday and who is going to go Saturday?
Keefe: Yeah, Hutch is going to go tomorrow.
Is that important to you — to get him in the first of a back-to-back just with how the season has gone with not having a win in a back-to-back yet with a backup goalie in?
Keefe: That certainly was part of the decision-making and we considered that. There are more things at play in this situation as well, given it is an earlier game. I know Freddy played the game in Colorado, but Hutch has played more in the American league and this past week was in the American league. 4:00 p.m. starts — he is accustomed to that. Also, we are going to get back to Toronto at a good time. That is going to give Freddy a normal game day on Saturday — the morning skate, get ready to play. With all of those things, it just made sense for us.
Hutchinson was complimentary of you and how you treated him when he was sent down in that situation. What stood out to you about his attitude through the process of this season so far?
Keefe: Well, it was a challenge for him coming down, of course. Just with the way the season had gone and then so abruptly being told that you are going to be going down, it is a tough realization, especially for someone at his stage of his career. He is kind of getting through that already.
There were some challenging days and we had to talk with him and also be patient with him and let him kind of work through some things emotionally. A credit to him — we were not surprised — that he over time just settled in. Being a good pro that he is, he just sort of got to work and has played outstanding for the Marlies. The fact that he has been busy in the net is something we think is important. We’re looking forward to giving him a chance to play tomorrow.
When you were growing up, did you ever get a chance to come down here and see some games and get a taste of the rivalry?
Keefe: I did not, but I do know a number of people — as I’ve been living back in the area now — that I know come to these games regularly. That is a thing. We look forward to it. I know that players like playing these types of games. I am sure I will join in on that.
What do you think you’ve done to help the team kind of get into a good mindset?
Keefe: I am trying not to get too caught up in my role in this. I think a lot of things have worked out in my favour. Just coming in as a new voice, I think, has given the players — some of them have talked about it — a new lease on life. They’ve been feeling good. We have really good players, so when they are feeling good and they’re confident, we feel like good things can happen.
We’ve tried not to give them too much as a staff. We rather just give them some things we think are really important. Of course, the offensive piece we think is really important to get this team really moving. They’ve responded really well. The credit goes to the players because of the skill level and the calibre of players that they are. It allows these things to fall into place.
What are your thoughts on the Sabres and the big four-point weekend?
Keefe: We need to start making up ground here and pulling away on teams. It is an opportunity to establish that here. They’re a team that had an excellent start to the season and then has had a tough schedule here since coming back from Europe and all of those types of things. They’re trying to find their way and find some consistency. I am sure they will be looking at this weekend as a chance to get themselves going. It’ll be on us to make it hard on them and keep things moving in a positive direction for ourselves.
How good was last night offensively in terms of possession and creating opportunities?
Keefe: It was good in a lot of areas, for sure. We had some good fortune early. The puck bounced our way a little bit and fell into the net. Whether the pucks go in or not, we want to have a good process of how we are playing and put ourselves in those situations for good things to happen. I thought that we did that early in the first period for sure, and then in the second half of the first, we kind of lost our way a little bit there. I really liked how we just established it again right from the start of the puck of the second period. The game was virtually over from there.
Those are really good signs. The players did a lot of good things. The nice thing about it is that it wasn’t just one line or two lines. It was all four lines and all six defensemen contributing in that manner. That is a pretty good sign for us.
Pierre Engvall had nine shot attempts to lead your club last night. What must he continue to do to establish himself at this level?
Keefe: Well, continue to do those types of things. Play with confidence. Go out there to make a difference. A guy with his size and skill set has the ability to make a difference and play at this level regularly, but he has to be able to do that. Yesterday, with the nature of the game being what it was, he got to paly more than he regularly would. He took advantage of it and is finding his way. I thought that line was really good and we need more of it.
You mentioned there are some NFL coaches you have studied and learned from. Is there one thing you can point to that you’ve picked up from Carroll or McVay or anything from kind of watching those guys?
Keefe: The biggest thing I would say is really just how it is not just about the coaching and the Xs and Os. It is just as much a priority to focus on the culture of the team and the spirit of the team and all of those types of things. I think that’s what I really learned from those two guys, in particular, watching them from a distance.
I don’t watch any NFL football. When the season starts, I really don’t pay much attention to it. It’s more in the offseason when I dig into what is really happening and get a chance to learn how people operate. I more focus on what happens behind the scenes than anything on the field, but that’s what I’ve learned from them.
Was there anything in particular that you saw in the way they communicated?
Keefe: Just in the way that they communicate to the players and how they are very positive in nature. They follow that through with just how they organize their day and their practice plans, and everything from the music to everything that is going on.