Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after his team’s first practice coming out of the bye week and All-Star break, discussing Jake Muzzin and Trevor Moore’s return to the lineup tomorrow night in Nashville, the tragic news about Kobe Bryant’s passing, and the challenge ahead in the final 33 games with the team currently out of a playoff spot.
How important was a week off in terms of getting this club to reset emotionally and physically to get ready for the final 33 games?
Keefe: I think it is good. We talked about that a lot before the break. It was a chance to get everybody away and regroup a little bit, particularly with how things finished off with us. I think it can serve us well.
That last game you said was an immature effort. What did you mean by that?
Keefe: Just the fact that we failed to rise to that occasion, similar to the Florida game. We talked about the importance of the game. In the Chicago instance, it is the last game before a break when things hadn’t been going all that well. It’s a good chance for us to finish it off the way that we would like to, and we failed to do that. That is not what you want to be about as a team. You want to rise to those occasions and you want to finish the job. The fact that we weren’t able to do that is disappointing. That is an area of growth and opportunity for our team.
The mathematicians among us have figured out the points you guys are going to need. How are you guys looking at it in terms of the number of points and wins you’re going to need to get back in this thing?
Keefe: We need to win tomorrow night against Nashville. That would be a good place for us to start. That is really what we are focused on. We recognize that we have a lot of games in a short amount of time here coming. That is going to be a grind all the way through. We also recognize the situation we are in in the standings and that it is going to be a battle right to the very end, likely. But we’ve got to take every day as it comes. We started today with our practice and what I thought was a good, productive meeting to set the tone for what remains and the job that is ahead for us.
We also tried to paint a picture to our guys that it is easy to focus a lot on how things finished in the last six games, in particular, before the break. That is just one sample. You look at the bigger sample and it presents an entirely different picture in terms of the progress that we made as a team and the reason for us to believe we can get things moving back in the right direction.
It looks like you are going to get a couple of injured players back. What will Jake Muzzin mean to the blue line to get him back?
Keefe: A great deal — both in his play on the ice and also in terms of his voice among our team. In many ways, he is the conscience of our team. He means a lot and speaks a lot. He has great experience, of course. He is an important player for us on the backend that makes everybody else a little bit better. It is nice to see him here. Credit to him also for having no ego and not being concerned about anything besides getting himself as prepared as possible; to just go down and spend some time with the Marlies. In talking to him, it sounds like it was a very positive experience and he felt great today. He’ll be ready to go tomorrow.
What is your level of concern with Auston’s wrist?
Keefe: Based on how it looked on the ice today and in my conversation with him, I would say a low level of concern. The time away and the treatment that he got seemed to help. It is looking like he will be ready to go tomorrow.
You had Timothy Liljegren up and you said you wanted to practice him. He ended up playing. Is it the same thing with Tyler Gaudet?
Keefe: I don’t think so. In this case, it was just bringing him up because we were uncertain about how Auston was going to be and also just how everybody else comes back coming off the break and making sure everyone is good. The Marlies were going to their All-Star break so the players kind of scattered. We wanted to make sure we had one handy. Also, the reports on Ty and how he has done there have been very positive. The team is trying to find its way, but he has been one constant with his effort and everything that he does. That is what I have come to know and expect from him from my time coaching him, whether it is in Pembroke or Sault Ste. Marie or with the Marlies. It is good to have him around in the event that we need him.
What do you like about him?
Keefe: He is just a good, honest player that gives it his all every single day, whether it is on the ice or off the ice. He is going to be right at the top in terms of his effort. He also has a good skill set. He is a player that matches that skill set with really good defensive instincts and a willingness to really defend and do all the hard jobs, whether it is faceoffs or penalty kill or tough matchups. He has always been able to handle those situations very well.
The guys said they were in shock with the Kobe Bryant news breaking. It kind of feels like a bit of weird day. What has been your sense of the group digesting such a hard story?
Keefe: It has been tough. I caught wind of it not long before we had to address the team for the first time coming out of the break. It was rattling, for sure. He is a guy that is so prominent in sports in terms of the impact he has made on it. He’s a guy where it’s easy to look at and think things are going very well. He’s got a young family and all of that kind of stuff. It hits you like that pretty quickly. It is a tough story and a tough one to process.
How about Trevor Moore? What did you guys miss with him?
Keefe: Additional depth, speed, and tenacity on the puck. We think that he brings a lot to our lineup, whether it is on the fourth line — where we are going to have him start tomorrow — or the ability to move up. He just makes us a deeper team. He is a versatile player who can play both wings, on the power play, and on the penalty kill. He gives us a lot more depth and I am really anxious to see him back in with the energy we think he can bring.
What did Rasmus Sandin show you in his time before the break that allows him to stay in even with Jake coming back?
Keefe: Just his confidence, his ability to play, continue to make plays and help us on the breakout and in the offensive zone, and on the power play — a lot of those types of things that Morgan brings to our team that he is able to do as well. It is a good chance for us to give him valuable experience here that can help both he and our team going forward. We are excited to continue to give him that look.
What is the biggest thing you want to see out of the team coming out of the break?
Keefe: Just a positive response to get back going here. If you look at the first 20 games since I got here, I think we are 15-4-1. We are 1-2-3 in the six games since then. It is kind of two different looks, two different teams, and two different samples. If you separate it, we like to think we are a little bit more like the team in the first 20. We want to be able to go back out and show that. We recognize it is going to take a little bit of time to get back and running here, but we’re going to play a team in the same boat as us. We want to just see a positive response in terms of getting back to playing as a group.