Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after practice on Monday, discussing the Matthews-Marner duo, the callup of Teemu Kivihalme, the team’s defensive play, balancing offense and defense, and Frederik Andersen’s selection to the All-Star team.
Are you pleased or surprised when you talk about how well Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have responded to each other? It’s not always the case when two elite players have to play with just one puck.
Keefe: Yeah, I am pleased for sure. The production has been really good. The energy between the two of them has been really good. The response, especially here recently with putting John with William, has been positive, too. We’re happy with that.
What stands out most about Mitch Marner’s game right now? 18 points in his last 11 games.
Keefe: He just looks confident to me. He is a guy who is going out there to make a difference, which I think is to say, really, that he has been himself. Obviously, the guys around him have played well also. It has been a good match for both 5-on-5 and the power play for him. He is a difference maker. When he feeling it, he is going to have that kind of production.
The guys you called up — Timothy Liljegren and Teemu Kivihalme — are they going to Minnesota?
Keefe: Teemu is going to go. Timothy is going to go back to the Marlies.
A nice little perk for Teemu, isn’t it, given where he grew up?
Keefe: Yeah, for sure. That is part of it. We only want to bring one guy. The Marlies play tomorrow. It was a chance for Timothy to stay in the lineup and keep playing. We’ll just bring one guy as an extra. We are expecting the six from the other night to be healthy.
Given how Kivihalme has played — for me when I was down with the Marlies, he played very well and was really starting to pick up on the things that we want him to be good at in terms of his skating and his defending. It’s a bit of an acknowledgment for that and for his development. Just the experience of being around here, as we’ve given it to some other guys. It just works out that it happens to be home for him.
Are you going to bring an extra forward as well?
Keefe: No, we are going to go there with 12 and 7.
Would you be comfortable if you needed to play one of your defensemen as a forward?
Keefe: We hope it doesn’t have to come to that, but… I don’t know if we would play him as a forward necessarily, but 11 and 7, if we needed to, wouldn’t be too unthinkable.
How do you value Frederik Andersen’s value to the team and — knock on wood — his ability to stay healthy and be consistent?
Keefe: It is imperative, obviously, that he remains healthy and we be conscious of his workloads and all of those types of things and just how he plays. You see it right now — as we are trying to find our way here both offensively and defensively, we are giving up big chances and we are having to rely on him a lot for that and we have for quite some time here. For a while there, it seemed like he could stop everything. He has come back to being human here, I think, recently, and it is just highlighting the fact that we need to protect him better. If limit what we give up, he is a very, very difficult guy to beat and it gives us a lot of confidence.
With this being a young team that is offensively gifted, is teaching defense a little harder? Would you say that is fair?
Keefe: Yeah, I do think that is fair. However, I think if you really look at it, a lot of our issues that have come up that have cost us goals against, it is easy to say they are defensive issues because it is going into our net, but we think they are offensive issues. They are turning the puck over in a bad spot. You can’t have any structure defensively when you turn the puck over in a bad spot. We think it is overdoing it a little bit on offense and then you leave yourself exposed.
Any time we have actually been in our structure defensively, we think we’ve done a good job. We haven’t been in our end very much defensively. Our d-zone coverage in the last five games or so — there is very little time spent in our end. We’ve done a pretty good job there. It is just worrying about those other little mistakes that are happening. When we are on offense, it is the few seconds right after that, before we can get into the defensive structure, that has been our problem.
As these guys get used to having the puck more and having more chances to turn it over, how close are you to getting it more under control?
Keefe: We think we are close. We think they are easy adjustments in terms of just being more conscious and more aware of it. It is difficult. The difficult part of it is when you’ve got such offensive players that are really feeling it, they feel like they can make a difference and they can score a goal at any time. They push a little extra. That would be the harder part.
In terms of the adjustments that we need to make and what we need to talk about as a coaching staff, we think it is pretty simple. It is just a mindset and a mentality. The actually going out and making it happen is different.
The other part of it is: I am much happier being in that position of just having to fix that than being someone that is in here every day trying to figure out, “How the heck are we going to score a goal?” I am happy that those are the issues we have to fix.
Do you prefer high-event hockey rather than low-event just as a general philosophy on how the game should go?
Keefe: Yeah, we’d like to be as high-event as possible for ourselves and as low-event for the opposition. I don’t think it is any different than any other team. I think where we are perhaps a little bit different is where we would be accepting of the fact that how we are going to play, it is going to give up some things. At times, when you create a good offensive chance, it can lead you exposed the other way. That is where we have to plug that hole, but we’ve talked a lot about that as a team. Obviously, we are not where we want to be there yet.
But we’ve generated a ton offensively in doing so, especially in the last bunch of games here. We’ve been almost doubling the amount of time in the offensive zone than we’ve been in our own end. That has really helped us. There is a lot of really good things happening there. We just have to find a way to not give up those egregious chances against.
Keefe: It’s personality, would be the big thing. He is a very easygoing guy. I think the organization also has treated him very well, and he’s recognized that. Obviously, he had a very good experience both with the Marlies and winning a championship but also I think we put a lot of time into him and working with him on his game, and he felt himself improving. All of those things are a part of it. His personality and how he has remained confident in himself and accepted the bouncing around a little bit — the credit would go to him. Remaining in the city of Toronto while moving up and down is a big factor as well.
If Frederik Andersen receives a selection to the All-Star Game, does it change the swagger of the team at all and for Freddy?
Keefe: I don’t think anything that happens and is outside the control of the players or the staff or the management and is outside of our walls impacts anything. I think it is more about what gets done to earn the recognition and the work that happens within the walls. We certainly believe we have a number of players — Freddy included — that have put themselves into a position to be recognized.
Is Ilya Mikheyev back from New Jersey now and what is happening there?
Keefe: He is flying back — he and Kyle Dubas. Kyle has remained there in New Jersey the entire time. They are flying back together today. I am told that he is doing as well as could be expected and his spirits have been very good. We will be happy to see him when we get back.
Is Andreas Johnsson expected to be back on skates very soon?
Keefe: I don’t have an update there. He’s not traveling with us, so in terms of what is going to be happening with our injured guys, I don’t know.