Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after practice on Monday, discussing Mitch Marner’s nearing return, Tyson Barrie playing on the top unit of the power play over Morgan Rielly, and the Marlies’ hiring of new head coach Greg Moore.
How did Mitch look to you today?
Keefe: He looked great in practice. He brought a lot of energy. In terms of his timeline for a return, I don’t know when exactly that is. Today was the first step, obviously — the first practice he’s had. The medical team will talk with him and they’ll sort all of that out, but based on his performance today, it doesn’t look like he’s too far away.
Is tomorrow a possibility or would you rule that out?
Keefe: Tomorrow is not a possibility, no.
What do you think of the potential of a line with Mikheyev, Tavares and Marner on it?
Keefe: Mitch and John have shown great chemistry there, of course, with Zach Hyman as well. That trio has been proven over time. That said, with Mikheyev, I think he is paired very well with John as well and we like what they’ve done as a line. Probably bigger than that for me, I want to see what Zach’s presence can do for Kerfoot and Kapanen. I think that is a line that we need to really kind of get going — not just in terms of offence and everything like that, but just being hard on the other team’s lines. If we could have that as a potential matchup opportunity for us to play against good people and free up some of the other lines, I think that can work very well for us. With Zach’s skill set, we think it fits very well theoretically. We want to have a look at it and see how it goes.
What was the thinking behind having Marner on the road trip even though he wasn’t playing?
Keefe: We had very little practice time in general. Our schedule being as busy as it is, he was cleared for practice. So a player like Mitch, you’re going to want to have him really involved and put him in a good spot and giving him reps that would mimic what you have in a game setting. It’s really just taking advantage of the time that we have.
How would you like to approach this back-to-back scenario with Hutchinson and Andersen?
Keefe: I think they’re going to go one each, but Freddy is going to go the first one here and we’ll focus on that
The Marlies new coach — what do you know about him, and it sounds like you’re going to work with him for a few weeks?
Keefe: I’ve gotten to know Greg a little bit here I would say since working with him at development camp last summer. Even previous to that, I was starting to learn a lot about the program he has there in Chicago. They’ve done a great job kind of being on the cutting edge in the USHL and player development in terms of how they’ve done things. I’ve taken notice of that and I think Kyle has taken notice of that. There is some connection there also in terms of our player development staff that has worked with Greg. With our development program, he gave a presentation to our team, as well and it gave us a sense of how he thinks and what he’s done there. He and I have bounced things back and forth throughout the season and early this year, as well. I’ve gotten a sense of what his values are as a coach. I don’t know him as well as a person yet — I am looking forward to that — but I think he brings a lot of positive things to the organization that will help us all grow.
What will the two weeks look like with him?
Keefe: I think what you’ll see with him is very similar to what you see with me in the past with training camp and exhibition. I know that my opportunity to get some exposure to the NHL and most importantly, the structure and the things that are expected from the coaching staff, the way that Mike and I worked together in that sense really helped me to do my job better. That is really what it will be: a chance for us to work together. The staff with the Marlies since I’ve left have done an unbelievable job; the work that they’ve done has shown they are in good hands in that sense. It’s a chance for him to get up to speed.
Has Babcock been that way in the past?
Keefe: He was terrific, yeah. That type of experience I was able to get; to be in the room, to be around, to know the language that is used and the system and expectations, and also knowing the players know that so that the message I am conveying with the Marlies is the appropriate one and can help them become Leafs. I think the way this has worked out and the plan Kyle has put together with Laurence Gilman will work out and serve the Marlies very well.
You’ve worked with William Nylander in the past. What is your impression of him five or six games into joining the Leafs?
Keefe: He looks hungry and confident. We’re trying to put him in really good spots, both at 5v5 and on the power play, to utilize the skills that he has. He has been really good. He and Auston and Johnsson have done a great job together.
Barrie joined the top power play. What is the thinking there when Mitch comes back?
Keefe: The look we had today… what remains important to us is having Tyson Barrie in a good spot and we wanted to look to see what that looks like. Not unlike with Zach and his chemistry with Tavares and Marner, we feel good about that and we can go back to that any time. I think we can say it’s similar to Morgan. We know what he can provide there and he also does very important things for us in other areas of the game. So freeing him up a little bit there can help in those areas, but more importantly, it can get Tyson a chance to really work with those guys and see what that can bring to the top group.
What area have you seen the biggest growth in Travis (Dermott) since you had him in the AHL?
Keefe: I don’t know if I’d say any one particular area. When I had him, of course, at the AHL level, he had become a pretty dominant player and was very good in a lot of areas. I think it’s more just: the more experience he gets, the more confidence he gets at this level; he’s still getting up to speed in terms of the time that he missed because of training camp and the early part of the season. So I think it’s more of that for him. I’m used to a very good and very dominant Travis Dermott. He’s finding his way towards being that at the NHL level. We’ve seen a lot of really good things. Over time, he’ll get more consistency.
There’s been a couple of changes on the PK along with some different personnel; what are you guys specifically trying to emphasize on the PK now in the last little bit?
Keefe: A couple of different, subtle things in terms of how we’re sorting things around our net and trying to protect our net a little bit better. But then just really identifying a process of trying to win the faceoff — which we haven’t done a great job of — but then getting our exits and clearing and making it hard (on the other team) to get in our zone and set up. We prioritize that rather than just focusing on being in our end. We want to try and minimize how much time we spend in our end. That’s really been it, but Hak (Dave Hakstol) has done a great job with the guys in that sense and the personnel that we’ve given extra opportunities there — they’ve brought some different elements we’ve liked.
Has it crossed your mind at all about going back-to-back with Freddie (Andersen)?
Keefe: No. That’s not something we think is in Fred’s best interest and would be selfish of us to do this at this point. There’s a big picture in mind here. Right now our focus is to try to get our game as set up as good as possible, so that doesn’t really matter who’s in the net — that they can go in and be confident and we can give them every chance to get the win.