Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after practice on Wednesday, discussing the adversity the team is facing after losses in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, the team’s acquisition of Denis Malgin, and the decision to start Frederik Andersen tomorrow in the rematch vs. the Penguins.
Was today an opportunity to sort of reset after the losses in Buffalo and Pittsburgh?
Keefe: It is a good chance for us to reset the group and have some conversations, as you said, but also get some work in. We haven’t had a chance to practice in quite some time, and when we have, it has been very brief, as it was today. We also needed it to be at a higher level that we know is going to be required to be able to compete at this stage of the season.
What was your message to William Nylander there in the chat at the end of practice?
Keefe: Just trying to check in with him to see where he is at and how he is feeling since he’s come back from his illness and getting his perspective of things. It was also just reminding him that he is an important player for us and had been playing at a very high level — producing at a very high level — and the offense isn’t always going to be there. We just need him to remain engaged on every shift and on every single puck. He has more to offer in that regard, but he’ll get it back because he has shown it over a larger sample. It has been a larger sample there of him being very good and very consistent for us rather than what we have seen recently.
Have you decided on a goalie for tomorrow?
Keefe: Yeah, Fred will start tomorrow.
It is just one of 82, but do you feel you are going to learn something about your group tomorrow?
Keefe: Yeah, I think so. I think we’ve been in this spot at different times before. The one that stands out to me the most — and we’ve gone back to it a bit — is when we came back from Philadelphia and played in the back-to-back. We came back home here and had to play Colorado the next night and ended up losing that game, but that was one of the most competitive games I’ve seen from our group. That was in response to an embarrassing finish to our game. Our goalie, Fred, comes out and wants to play in a back-to-back. He wants to be there with his team. The group rallied around it. That really showed me a lot about our team and what we are capable of. We just need to make the decision that the time is now and that it is important. We need to rise to the occasion.
As a coach, how do you create urgency amongst your players?
Keefe: As a coach, you can just remind them when it is not there and talk to them about what is happening around them and what other teams are doing and what we failed to get to ourselves. We can have a practice like we did today. It is just trusting that the players themselves, just with what they’re going through — our guys have pride. They don’t want to have the results that we’ve had. They don’t want the games to go the way they’ve gone. That, in itself, and our conversations with the players today is enough to get the players’ attention in that sense. Now we have to bring it to the ice knowing we are going to have to do so against one of the most challenging opponents in the league.
Back to Frederik Andersen starting, what was behind the decision?
Keefe: It was fairly obvious. He is our guy. He is coming back off of an injury here. We need to get him back going. When this team has been at its best is when Fred has been at his best. Soupy has come in here and we’ve got confidence in him in the games that he’s played, but this is a whole different situation. It is a whole different level of competition. Fred is our guy and we need him to be great.
How can today’s trade for Denis Malgin help with your forward depth?
Keefe: I think it does help us. It is not a player I am overly familiar with other than watching a little video in the one game we played against him, but he gives us another NHL player — a guy that has a lot of skill and can do a lot of the things we like to do, but also Paul McFarland is familiar with him, and when he talks about him, he is not just a small, skilled guy; he is a competitor as well and wants to do well. When he has played with good players, he has succeeded. It hasn’t gone as well for him, but we need a little extra depth with NHL players with skill, and we think we’ve got one here now.
Are you looking for a response from your young guys — Marner, Matthews — as well?
Keefe: Yeah, but those guys have played good hockey. Last night, we didn’t have the first period we have come to expect from him, but I thought Auston, in the second and third period, was really working and competitive. I like that when the game was out of hand, those guys didn’t stop playing. They continued to work and continued to stay engaged in the game. Those guys have been doing their work and their jobs. Now we need them to find perhaps another level, but it is more the supporting cast here that has to do their part and come along with them.
This is the most adversity you’ve gone through as the coach here. What are some of the challenges you’re going through trying to work through this?
Keefe: It is part of the deal. It is new for me here with this team, but it is not new for me. It is part of coaching. At various levels, you are going to go through all of these things. I coached really good teams with the Marlies, but they didn’t come without their adversity, whether it is within a season or within a playoff series or what have you. We had great teams that finished first overall and dominated the regular seasons and won the Calder Cup, but we also had teams like in the last season where we were in last place at one point in the year. In the second year, the Marlies were in last place and we had to find a way to work our way into the playoffs. Last season, we ended up making it to Game 6 in the Conference Finals. I have been through this a number of teams, and I think a lot of times when you go through this, you find out a lot about your group. When you come out the other side, you’re a lot better for it, and that will be the case for us.
In terms of Frederik Andersen, how much can you separate his individual performance from the team context? Sometimes, people will say it is only goaltending for this team. Last night, that’s not what it was, but where is the balance there and how do you divide that up?
Keefe: There is a balance. Each game is different. Last night, the puck was basically passed into the net on those three power-play goals. That is on us as penalty killers to do a better job. I think Fred and Steve Briere and those guys are working hard every day to get him playing at the level he is capable of, which is a guy who has the ability to make the easy saves look easy but also the one that makes difficult saves and takes those challenges head on when we crack defensively.
For us as a coaching staff and the players, we are focusing on trying to protect our goaltenders as best we can with how we defend. We didn’t do a very good job on the penalty kill yesterday. We have seen a lot of progress on our penalty kill, but it just didn’t happen yesterday. I was told this morning — I don’t know if it is accurate or not — that last night was the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve given up more than one goal on the PK in any particular game. It hasn’t been an issue. Yesterday, it was. We’ll have to get that cleaned up and keep pressing along, but everybody here has their own job to do, and that’s what we want to focus on: Everybody worrying about themselves and doing their work to prepare and perform.
How can the bottom six help the top six? You mentioned shift length and putting them in good spots.
Keefe: I think that is part of it. We talk a lot about the depth players and trying to put our best guys in good spots and try to manage the game that way, but it goes the other way as well for those guys to do their job. The third and fourth lines need to be put in good spots, too. That is part of it, but also our top guys can continue to set the example and continue to encourage our other guys to work and be a part of it and recognize their value among the team. That is all part of the process here. We’ve got some guys here that haven’t been thriving and haven’t been playing at their best. We’ve all go to work together to take that step to get them going.
Is what Andreas Johnsson going through and what it is going to take back similar to what John Tavares went through last Spring?
Keefe: It is a different injury. My knowledge of it is this is a meniscus situation. He went in and there were two different scenarios — one in which they are going to potentially remove it, and in that case it would’ve just been six-to-eight weeks, but in this case, they were able to repair it, which is better for him long term but it is a longer recovery process. I think that is what ended up changing the timeline for him. That is what is best for him, and if that is what is best for him, that is what is best for us in the long term. He will have a good long summer to recover and train and be ready for training camp next year.
How much has the uncertainty of the trade deadline impacted this room?
Keefe: I am not sure about that. It’s not something we have talked about or that I’ve sensed. Obviously, this time of year, it probably plays on everybody’s mind a little bit. The opposition is going through the same things. I think that would be something we’re not going to focus too much on.
Is Denis Malgin going to be an option to play tomorrow?
Keefe: I think they’re out on the West coast and he is making his way here. As long as he is feeling alright when he arrives and everything goes smoothly with the travel, the expectation is he is going to play tomorrow.
Any idea on where in the lineup he might play tomorrow?
Keefe: No, I had a lot on my plate tomorrow, so that was one of the things… We started talking about it, and I said, “Let’s focus on what we need to focus on and we’ll debate that tomorrow. We didn’t change anything with the lines or D-pairs today just because it wasn’t going to affect the practice, but we will get that all sorted out tomorrow.
How unique is it to trade with the team that is right behind you for a playoff spot?
Keefe: I never thought of it in that sense, but I think two teams saw a need. In our case, we found a way to get a younger player with more NHL experience who is more ready to contribute right now. That is what we needed and that will work for us.
Mason Marchment is a guy that I have worked with a lot. He has put in a ton of work on himself. When he has come up here, he has played well. We just haven’t been able to find a consistent role for him. I hope, for his sake, it works out for him. Obviously, they’ve sought him out and he is a guy who they wanted from us. He will get an opportunity there, I suspect.
I wish him all the best because he is a great kid who has put in a ton of work and has really worked at his game. It’s just a credit to him for putting the work in but also our development staff and the Marlies organization for the work they put in to develop an undrafted player that we were able to trade for an NHL asset.