Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe joined the TSN pregame show on Monday night ahead of the Leafs’ clash against the Edmonton Oilers, discussing the team’s 15-4-1 start under his leadership, Michael Hutchinson gaining traction in net, and his coaching style.
Keefe: I would say just the fact that we have grown and evolved. Maybe not so much every game, but through the segment here — the 20 games — I think we’ve shown growth. When we have met a challenge — something that was popping up in our game — we were able to make adjustments on the fly, be it through practice, video, or internal discussions. We’ve seen growth in a lot of areas. Throughout that, we’ve remained consistent with how we have played with the puck. Guys are having lots of success offensively and the puck is going in the net for us.
The Leafs beat the Oilers in December. How do you frame up a rematch against the two top scorers in the NHL?
Keefe: We are going to spend a lot of time talking about them, as we did this morning. We will again here soon — just some reminders of what we can do to manage the puck against them and also take away space and fill the middle of the ice so they don’t have as much room to skate through the neutral zone, which they have a lot of success doing.
Of course, every team in the league talks about doing those things, but being able to go out and execute on them is a whole other challenge. We’ve got to be prepared. We know that. At the same time, we’ve got real good players, too. We want to play to our strengths and try to make those guys defend as much as we can.
Michael Hutchinson suddenly has three consecutive wins. How big of a priority has it been for you to put him in better positions to win? How do you plan to use him the rest of the way?
Keefe: It was very important. The first thing we had to do is stabilize the team to be in a better spot to be able to maybe put him in those positions and not have to rely on Freddy as much as we felt we maybe needed to early. We’ve felt like we’ve got the team in a good place here. We feel more confident, which is why you make the decision to put him in that situation.
We did feel that we needed to find different starts for him — starts where he could feel the confidence the team has in him by putting him in on a Saturday night where we didn’t play the day before, and trust that he could do out and do the job. We needed to really get a feel for whether or not he could be the answer for us. We didn’t think we had the right answers until we could put him in a position to succeed, as he did the other night.
Another thing you did is put Justin Holl and Martin Marincin together. For four games now, they haven’t been on the ice for a single 5v5 goal against. What is it about that combo that has worked so well?
Keefe: I have a lot of experience working with those two guys playing together. That has given me some confidence to put them back together and get them going. Obviously, the AHL is not the NHL, but those guys dominated the American league together. As I said, our whole team has stabilized to be able to give guys that weren’t given opportunities to see what they can do here.
The injury to Muzzin is a tough one for us because he means a lot to our team, but it was a chance to give Marincin a good go here and feel like he can play every single day and be relied upon. We played him against good players.
Holl, of course, is in a really good place with where his game is at. The pairing has done well for us. We feel good about them.
Another one of your priorities with the Leafs has been to take into consideration your players’ personal connections when considering when to put non-regulars perhaps into the starting lineup — Adam Brooks in Winnipeg, Justin Holl back in Minnesota. Why is that important to you?
Keefe: I just think that it just makes sense. We’ve got these guys here that are doing this together. It is a long season. When you have an opportunity to create some moments or situations that would have extra meaning to them or their families, I think it is important to do that. I think the team recognizes it as well and can rally around the group. As you saw, Adam Brooks goes out on the ice and does the lap in Winnipeg and Marchment goes out and joins him in the first NHL game. Those are things the players themselves do, and you see it across the league. Those are the players that are doing those things. Players recognize the importance of moments. I think it is important for staff to recognize that as well.
Adam Brooks’ quote was that you are a very caring person who is a player’s coach. Do you still yell and scream and throw things, or does that just not work with the modern hockey player?
Keefe: I think the modern hockey player, as you’d call it, is certainly different than what I may have grown up in as a player. I feel like I get pretty passionate at times, as well. If that is what it calls for… But it’s creating those moments and creating the trust and relationships with the players that gives you the freedom or the ability to call them out or raise the intensity level a little bit and have them respond positively.