Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after practice on New Year’s Day, discussing the callup of Mason Marchment from the Marlies, Adam Brooks’ first two games in the NHL, the benefits of exposing Marlies to the NHL program, William Nylander’s excellent play of late next to John Tavares, and the challenge against the Jets in Winnipeg tomorrow.
What went into the decision to recall Mason Marchment and have him join the team on the road?
Keefe: Yeah, we wanted to have an extra body around here. We’ve got some guys who got a little bit banged up yesterday. We just want to make sure everybody is good. We haven’t made any decisions with our lineup today. We’ll just see how everybody is tomorrow and go from there.
This is another guy who you know well who perhaps didn’t start with this as his end goal, but here is now getting his opportunity.
Keefe: Mason is another guy who has had a long journey. He has put in a lot of work on his game and his body. He has battled through injuries. This season, again, the same thing — a second surgery on his shoulder. I’ve been really impressed with how he’s worked from my time with the Marlies and the early going this season. His attitude and the work that he put in to recover from his second surgery within the same calendar year — it’s tough. He handled it very well and has put himself in the position to get this call.
It is hard not to notice the fun your team seems to be having on the ice and in the dressing room. What would you say, other than the obvious answer of winning, has led to that?
Keefe: It is the obvious answer, but I think that is the answer. When you are losing, it is harder to feel that way. One of the things in coming here is that I tried to ease the pressure a little bit by just allowing them to be themselves and have fun and try to keep things in perspective all the time. The team has been playing well, but we’re here and it’s a new year. It is the first of January, which is probably not the most ideal day to come to the rink and practice, but we are here. It is important for us to get some work done, but do it in an environment where the players can enjoy themselves and still leave the arena feeling like they accomplished something.
We’re at the halfway point in the season. At one point, it didn’t look like you could be where you are in the standings. If you look back at the time you’ve been here, how satisfied are you with what you have been able to accomplish in the standings?
Keefe: We like the fact that we’ve been able to win more than we’ve lost, for sure. We put together a good little stretch here. As I was coaching in the minors and I followed the NHL closely, one of the things that was really clear to me was that there is a lot of big swings that teams go on — good stretches where teams find their way, and then things can turn in an instant and it goes the other way and it is hard to get it back.
One of the things I’ve really wanted to make sure I do is keep a proper perspective and focus on a new day as it comes and take it a day at a time. I think that is what is important for us — to not lose ourselves here and just keep building and getting better every day.
Do you see more consistency in William Nylander’s game the last little while?
Keefe: Yeah, I have. He has been really good here now. Whether it is him just finding his own game and getting comfortable, or the switching lines and that chemistry there with the presence of John on his line, or his presence on the power play, where he has gotten a lot more comfortable with the role he’s playing there — it’s a new role for him. All of those sort of things seem to be falling into place, and he’s been excellent.
You said you thought of putting him with John before that actually happened. Was there something you specifically thought might work between the two of them or was it more just a hunch?
Keefe: More just a hunch. Every time you make one move, there is a trickle-down effect. We also wanted to get a look at Auston and Mitch a little more consistently to see how that would go. It is all part of it, but we are fortunate that we have a lot of good players and we can experiment with some different things. They all seem to work.
Are you experimenting with Alex Kerfoot on the wing or is it just to fill the hole with the injuries?
Keefe: It is in response to the loss of Mikheyev. It is having to react and make a change to that line. We wanted to get a look at that. In a sense, it is an experiment, but this one is more out of necessity. We have liked how it looks so far. We had intended on having Pierre play the middle on the third line and didn’t like how that looked early, so we put Spezza there. That got some traction pretty much immediately, so we are going to stick with that here for now.
As we talked about yesterday, the season brings a lot of different things — different opponents, different challenges, injuries, players playing well, players not playing well. The more sample we have with different combinations, it can serve us well there.
What did you like about Adam Brooks with the Marlies and what has he done in his short time here? Is he going to play tomorrow in his hometown?
Keefe: Brooksy certainly is going to play tomorrow. He has played well in the two games he has been here and played a little bit more yesterday. I thought he was great. The biggest thing I’ve seen from him this season relative to last is just his confidence in his ability. He feels like he belongs. And then just his skating. Part of it is the work he has put into his skating, but with confidence, you just dig in a little bit harder and you push a little bit more.
I feel like he has been skating at a much higher level right from training camp of the season. He has fought injuries a little bit, but when he has played when I was with the Marlies, he was skating and he was on the puck and he was doing everything — power play, penalty kill, faceoffs, tough matchups. In the games I’ve watched since I’ve been here, he has continued with that and the reports have been the same.
He has earned this opportunity. He is another guy that started slowly in his first year with us, but by the time we won the Calder Cup, he was an integral piece of our team with our depth. At that time, he was playing with Trevor Moore, who is a part of our team here now, and Mason Marchment, who is joining us here. Those guys are a big part of our team there and it is nice to see them be able to take the next step.
Is there a benefit to just getting those guys around the NHL program?
Keefe: That is part of what I have been trying to do here — to try to expose as many people as possible to our program. Sort of along the same lines as moving players around in the lineup, it’s trying to get a feel for the players that might just be needing an opportunity.
Part of getting that opportunity is to be prepared for it when it comes. Even if they don’t get into the lineup, we think having them around gives them a chance to be comfortable — with the staff, with their teammates, with what we are doing, with the NHL and what the NHL brings — so that when they do get on the ice, they feel more comfortable. We did that with Brooks and it seemed to work very well. We are trying to expose as many guys as we can to it as possible.
What are you expecting your first look at the Jets tomorrow?
Keefe: First of all, there are dangerous offensive weapons and if we make mistakes, they will make us pay for it. They are going to work hard and be competitive. We’re just going to have to be prepared for that. I think we were much better defensively yesterday, but it will be put to the test even more so tomorrow.