Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after his team’s practice on Wednesday, discussing the loss of Jake Muzzin to injury, the team’s win over Tampa Bay, the challenge to the team’s defensive depth, and much more.
Does it feel like you’re coaching the Marlies again in here?
Keefe: I don’t know about that [laughs]. You look at the group and there are a lot of familiar faces there. Bringing Rosen back, it is pretty darn close to the Calder Cup championship defense. It is a good thing for me. I’ve got comfort in those guys and confidence in them. They’re a confident group together at the same time. These guys are not AHL defensemen. That’s the big thing.
I thought Rosen, if he wasn’t included in that trade, would have had a really good opportunity to be playing in the NHL this season. We’ve been able to add him for depth purposes, and now you kind of need the depth. It’s a good thing for us. The other guys have taken on big minutes and responsibilities here of late. They are ready for a little more.
How would you describe the challenge of having to play down three of your top six defensemen from the start of the year?
Keefe: It is a challenge, of course. It puts a little more onus on our collective group — the forwards in particular — to do a good job of protecting them. Even if we were healthy, that is part of what we are talking about all the time: Helping our defense and insulating our defense and taking care of the puck and all of those things. It will just be a heightened awareness on that front.
There is just an increased opportunity for everyone here. Whether Travis Dermott, Sandin or Liljegren, these guys have been looking for an opportunity to do more and play more with greater responsibilities with matchups. They’ll get that.
What is it about Travis Dermott that makes you believe he is ready for more?
Keefe: Looking at last night’s game — which is a challenging game because of the depth of their team — and how he played against some of their better people and how competitive he was, I thought he just really worked hard and defended our net well. Last night’s game, when Muzzin went down, he had to take on more yesterday, as the entire group did. It is just a good sign that he is up for that challenge.
As I say, I think he has been waiting for the chance to take steps. The first one was with Rielly being out. For a period of time, it was Rielly and Muzzin both out, as it is again here along with Ceci. Everybody is going to be asked to do a little bit more and is going to be required to do more.
Some of your players are calling this game tomorrow the biggest game of the year. How are you feeling going into tomorrow without one of your leaders on defense?
Keefe: It is not ideal, but it is part of the gig, right? It is the reason you acquire depth, the reason why you acquire players, the reason why you have a good and healthy minor league system — to be able to have these situations happen and continue to press on. We have done it before, which is a good thing for us, just playing without Rielly and Ceci. Muzz was out for a period of time as well and we had to find ways to get points and play well as a team and continue to press on. This will be no different.
How will Rosen integrate into your system, Sheldon?
Keefe: I think it will be a seamless transition for him given not just his comfort with me but the entire organization. We have changed a few things here from his time that he was with the Marlies or Leafs last year, so that is going to take a little bit of time to adjust and become accustomed to. Also, I don’t think he has had the greatest travel arrangements and all of those types of things in terms of getting to Toronto. I think he was preparing himself to play the Marlies‘ 11 a.m. game this morning and instead was up extremely early to get to the airport to get here. He has had the run-around a little bit, so it will take some time to adjust. But I really like the skill set that he brings.
45 days ago, Rasmus Sandin was playing for the Marlies. Two days ago, Tyson Barrie didn’t even know if he was going to be here. Now they are arguably your top pairing. How crazy has this been?
Keefe: I hadn’t been thinking about it in that context. Especially with coming with where I have come from in the American league, one day to the next, you don’t know what your team is going to look like and what players you are going to have. There are so many things you can’t control. At this level, really, the biggest thing you can’t control is injuries. They happen and you have to be able to deal with it. It is another test for our team and our players to really around each other and make everybody better.
Do you have any estimates on when Morgan Rielly or Cody Ceci will be back?
Keefe: I don’t other than to say it is still weeks.
You spoke about Jake Muzzin’s value in terms of leadership yesterday. Do you look for other people to step up in that regard? Is that something that is naturally going to happen?
Keefe: I think it will happen and it is going to need to happen. I think every player, regardless of experience, is going to have to show leadership in their own manner. That said, Tyson Barrie is the guy who right away jumps off the page in terms of the experience that he provides on defense. I might be wrong, but he might have more games played than every single other guy combined, or something in that neighbourhood. We are going to have to rely on him in that sense, but it is going to have to be a team effort here. Forwards, defense, goaltenders — everybody doing a good job of playing for each other and protecting each other. The coaches have to do a good job to keep the group confident and feeling good.
I thought today, in terms of the vibe and the energy around our team, it is as good as it has been in a very long time. We earned that through the effort yesterday and the result we got. We want to continue to feel that way. We want to make sure our preparation is really good to just keep moving forward.
It has been a month or so since you played here last. Is there something you can take away from the fact that it didn’t go very well that night?
Keefe: Just about how important the preparation is. We talked about that before we went on the ice here. The preparation begins now going on the ice for today’s practice and then taking the gear off today. Through the remainder of today and tomorrow, the preparation is the biggest thing and just being ready to play.
We didn’t get the result we wanted the last time we played these guys in Toronto, but we really liked a lot of things about that game. I think that is a pretty good recipe for us in terms of how we can find success. I believe if we can do that, the result will turn our way.