Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after practice on Monday, discussing the increase in ice time for his star forwards, Frederik Andersen’s leadership, Nick Robertson getting named to the U.S. World Junior roster, and the game against the Canucks on Tuesday night.
Your special teams since you’ve been here — are they an indication of the consistency you’d like to see out of the club?
Keefe: The special teams are a crucial part of the game, of course, so it has been an area where we have put a lot of focus and attention on. Still, it’s a pretty small sample here in terms of the success that we’ve had, but we want to see that continue to progress. We want to be on the power play more than we have as well and continue to get the penalty kills that we’ve had, especially at key times.
Are you making a conscious effort to play some of your star players more? It seems like minutes for guys like Auston, Mitch, John, and Willy have gone up since you’ve taken over. Is that something you’re trying to do?
Keefe: Yeah, that is definitely my intention. Some of the games where they’ve played a little bit less, the games are usually in hand and we’re using our bench more. Those are great players that we believe have the ability to make a real difference for us. We want to play with the lead as much as we can. We believe those guys give us the best chance of making that happening. We want to get them involved, especially early.
Do you have to talk to the sports science guys and say, “What is the ideal number for these guys?” Do you just kind of go by how they feel and the feedback that way?
Keefe: In the game, as we are going, I am more just reacting to the feedback they are giving me just in terms of the body language and what I can sense. Sometimes I’ll just ask them. We have the benefit of timeouts that help it. It’s kind of where you see some of the spikes in their ice time — before and after those timeouts.
The sports science guys are keeping an eye more on the bigger picture and giving us a sense of what might be too much. We haven’t reached that point yet so we just keep it rolling.
Speaking of timeouts, you called one after the second St. Louis goal and the team seemed to settle down after. How important is the verbal part of getting your message across to these guys?
Keefe: It is important. There are a lot of things that go into it. There is the whole part of just stalling the momentum of the other team a little bit, but bigger for me is just trying to find as many teachable moments as I can. A moment like that in the game is just a chance to settle the team down and talk about some things that we talked about in the intermission and we didn’t bring out to the ice. It was a chance to reset a little bit.
I try to utilize the timeout as much as I can. It’s tough to leave it in your pocket when you walk off the bench at the end of the game and you think, “I could’ve used it at certain times.” We’re going to be a little more proactive with it.
As a new coach coming in, how have you approached your relationship with Andersen?
Keefe: Steve Briere is the guy that is interacting and working with him mostly. For me, it is more just checking in and making sure he knows I am here if he wants to talk about anything, and also for me to check in with him and how he is feeling. There are some different things we’ve talked about with his scheduling and how much he practices and what he gets for reps and how much time we give him away from our practice sessions. It’s just trying to bounce some of those things off of him and getting his perspective so we can put him in a position to succeed every day.
Morgan Rielly called him the team’s Mr. Reliable. What has stood out most about him over your tenure so far?
Keefe: Reliable is a good adjective to use in terms of the fact that he is very steady every day in his demeanor and how he prepares and, of course, his ability to make saves for us at key times. We saw the other day early in the game where we gave up some chances before we really settled into the game. He keeps us in it and gives us a chance to build the lead that he did.
You see also the fact that he stepped up the way he did at the time when he wasn’t happy with his performance or the team’s performance in Philadelphia. He wants to play. There are just a lot of really great qualities there that you love to have in a goaltender.
Do you still have intentions to get Michael Hutchinson a start on this road trip?
Keefe: Yeah. We’re taking it a day at a time and looking to see how the games go. Freddy is going to play tomorrow and we’ll kind of take it a day at a time from there.
When you combine two of your most offensive defensemen on a pairing (Rielly and Barrie), how concerned were you that they might be a defensive liability?
Keefe: I am not concerned about that. I think that both guys, with the way that they skate and just the way that we are trying to adjust our structure… We think it helps all of our players and insulates our defense a lot better. Also, in pairing them with some of our better players, the hope is that the play is going to be in the other half of the ice while knowing that that’s not always going to be the case. We trust these guys. They’re good players. They’re reliable players in their own right and they recognize what we want to get done on both sides of the puck with them.
You saw a little bit of Nick Robertson at camp. He got named to the US World Junior roster today. What do you feel that can do for him?
Keefe: That tournament is a great experience for young players and it is one that they aspire to play in. I know it was one he was excited to play in. I saw him at the Marlies game a while back. When he was injured, he came because his brother was playing against us with Texas. He checked in. At that time, being healthy and rolling in time for the World Junior camp was important for him. It’s a good step for him and very well deserved. He has been outstanding right from my exposure to him in development camp to the rookie tournament, Leafs training camp, and obviously, what he’s done in the OHL so far.
With how many games you had as an NHL player back in Toronto, can you maybe measure how important it is to the four BC boys you’ve got in the lineup tomorrow night in Vancouver?
Keefe: I talked to each of them today. I know they are excited to spend some time at home yesterday with family and friends. That is always an exciting time, definitely. It is nice that the schedule has worked out for them the way that it has and for them to spend a little extra time here. It can give them a little boost and revive them a little bit in terms of the grind of the season that inevitably comes for everyone. That is definitely a treat for them. I felt the same when I came back to Toronto as a player.
You’ve only had two games of Tavares and Marner together. They’ve only had 13 all season. What have you seen from that line and how close is it to what it can probably be?
Keefe: I think it is still going to take time. The last game was the first time that Hyman has been with them, so that is a different dynamic as well. Mitch is just trying to find his legs and find his game, both in terms of the fact that he is recovering from an injury but also playing a little bit differently in terms of my arrival here and the changes that we’ve made. But it is very clear the impact he makes on the game. To me, John has just been very reliable and very good in all areas of the game since I’ve been here.
Mitch has talked about how he enjoys that there is more freedom for them offensively to try different things. For forwards, is that part of your philosophy — to empower that creativity, to maybe try a play that might be a 50% play?
Keefe: It is not necessarily about trying plays that are 50-50 plays. It is more about trying to put the players into spots where the advantage would be more on our side. We just feel like, with players like Mitch, he has the ability to get to those spots more frequently than others and make those plays at those times.
When you say a 50-50 type of play, we’d like for him to perhaps look for another option and hang onto it. I talked to him about that today, actually. With the way that he sees the game and the way he has the ability to hold onto a puck and escape pressure, there is no reason for him to force anything. He can wait for the better option.
Those are the types of things that take some time — yes, we want our guys to have a little extra freedom and make the play for sure, but it has to be the appropriate play at the appropriate time knowing what is happening in the game.
In terms of playing the stars more, is a part of that just philosophy and how much is that the urgency of where you guys are in the standings?
Keefe: It is a philosophy for me. I just think we want to get ahead in games. We want to set our team up for success. Getting those guys out is important to us. We trust our team. We trust our bench. But I think they all recognize the difference makers and the fact that they have to be out there. When they are fresh and ready and the game allows us to, we are going to get them onto the ice as much as we can. When it comes time to trust and utilize the rest of our bench, we also have faith that those guys are going to go out and do a job.
So it’s not that complicated — the good players are the good players?
Keefe: I try not to overthink it, yeah.
Has Trevor Moore been cleared yet?
Keefe: No, he has not.