Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe addressed the media on day one of Phase 3 training camp, discussing the team’s fitness, his approach to an unprecedented camp situation, the impression Nick Robertson has made so far, and Auston Matthews’ conditioning after losing a few weeks of training due to the COVID-19 virus.
On a day that was about hockey being back, the players decided to wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts and keep that in the conversation. What are your thoughts on them taking that initiative? How does it compare to your playing days? Do you think you would’ve seen something similar back then?
Keefe: I think it is really difficult to relate to when I was playing, or anything like that, when you think about it. I think it was a great initiative by our players, one our organization is very supportive of. As you mention, on a day when everyone wants to talk about hockey and is getting excited about playing, it is important to have that Black Lives Matter movement be prevalent. We want to make sure that is not lost in all of this. It is a very important issue that we haven’t forgotten about. We want to be a part of creating positive change.
How does this training camp feel, your first real training camp with this team? How excited were you to get going with it? What changes might we expect systems wise when you do drop the puck again on August 2nd?
Keefe: Obviously, we are very excited. It has been a long break. It was a strange break, of course, for many reasons, but as we went through it as coaches, there are different intervals where you’re not sure. Is it going to be three weeks from now? Is it going to be a month from now? When are we going to be coming back? We wanted to be as prepared as possible for a return. I think it has been about six weeks or so here now where we have had this date or timeframe in mind. We have been able to prepare for that.
It has been exciting for me. It’s a chance to really work at the foundation of what we want our team to be about. I think we made really great strides on the offensive side of things. That was my goal in coming — to really get our offense moving in the way it is capable of. But we are well aware of the fact that we need to make a lot of improvements defensively. We will work over the next 14 days to make gains in that area.
Outside of Andreas Johnsson, you have a healthy lineup. How does that feel?
Keefe: It feels very good. It was great to see Mikheyev out there today — not just today, but I have been taking in the sessions over the last five weeks that we have been in Phase 2. Myself, I have been able to, over the last three weeks at least, have a look and watch the sessions that have been happening. Mikheyev looks excellent, and Muzzin as well. Those guys have not really had any time off. They continued to rehab their injuries and continued to skate for the most part. It is exciting to see them.
We obviously still miss Andreas. He is an important piece of our team. We are happy that he is making progress toward a return, but it was nice to see everybody else out there otherwise.
Can you comment on Nick Robertson’s first day? He was energetic, split the D a couple of times, and had a hit or two. A couple of players mentioned that the puck seems to follow him around. What was your impression of him today?
Keefe: I thought he worked hard, as I’ve come to expect from him. I am not going to do too much evaluating on day one. We were really trying to make the conditions difficult out there for the players. We had some important things we wanted to get accomplished in terms of our structure and our system of play. The parameters we set out in terms of practicing with just three lines and scrimmaging with just two lines — we wanted to make it difficult from a conditioning standpoint. Overall, the pace of play and the quality of play went down as a result, but that was by design.
I thought, despite being tired, Nick pushed through it. He is another guy that, over the last three weeks that I have been watching these sessions — and Nick has been here for five weeks skating every day here — I have come to know better as a player. His work habits are exceptional.
What did you think of the goaltenders today? It’s just day one, but they were pretty good in both scrimmage games.
Keefe: That was one thing that really stood out to me in the scrimmages. There were some great chances. I thought Frederik Andersen was terrific in goal and made a lot of great saves, but all of the goalies stood tall and made the scrimmages low scoring, despite the fact that there wasn’t a lot of energy and the guys were quite tired. We didn’t give them much opportunity to recover with only two lines, so the goalies were put to the test in that sense. I thought they stood up well.
Auston Matthews confirmed today that he tested positive for COVID-19 last month. What was your initial reaction and what was the level of concern when you heard that back in June?
Keefe: Obviously, you are concerned just about his health and making sure he is okay. That is first and foremost. Our medical team has been terrific throughout this whole time here to really adapt to the circumstances and the protocols. They are putting everybody’s health — player or staff — at the forefront. That was the case with Auston. They got on top of it very quickly.
Fortunately, he seemed to be asymptomatic for the most part. My conversations with him, for the most part, were about his rest period. I know he was doing well. When he got here, he was able to get right to work right away and got a really good week of skates in here prior to camp. He is making up for lost time in that sense, but he had been skating and working hard before that time. He is looking like himself.
Do you consider him to be up to speed at the level everybody else is in terms of physical fitness?
Keefe: I think just naturally with the fact that he wasn’t able to train at the same level as these guys here… The reports I was receiving in the first couple of weeks, and what I watched myself in the last three weeks, we have had a lot of great work happening here. This was my day one of me being on the ice and day one of the full-team practices with everybody working as a group on the ice. The work that has been happening here over the last five weeks has been really good. The guys that have been here the entire time, I think, are at a higher level. It is up to everyone else to continue to work and us to support them with the cause of getting up to speed at that level. We have time to do that.
All things considered, Auston has worked hard and done what he could given his circumstances. It won’t be long before the conditioning matches up with his ability.
Does it hit closer to home when someone you work with and care about contracts it? You just don’t know where it might lead.
Keefe: For sure. That happened right around a time when it started to hit the NHL in general with bigger numbers. It was right there. That was just a bit of a bump to all of us in terms of paying attention to the protocols and taking this very seriously. I think that really allowed everybody to just kind of tighten up and make sure we are doing all the right things to stay healthy ourselves, and then, of course, making sure that we are doing our part to make our room healthy and make sure everyone comes into it healthy so we can work towards a safe return.
You also have a lot of family down in Arizona. Is everybody healthy down there?
Keefe: My mother-in-law was really our greatest concern. Around that time, things were really starting to increase in terms of the numbers in Arizona. Again, it’s just another reminder for not just us here in Toronto but back in Arizona that everybody should be safe and be cautious in what they are doing and stay home as often as possible — all of those types of things.
Everybody is safe and healthy here, and we are looking for that to continue. Everyone I know is taking this very seriously. Of course, as a team and organization right, that’s even more so given that we want to make sure we are giving ourselves every opportunity to remain healthy and work towards a safe and healthy return.
Was there a point at all where you getting really concerned the season would not resume?
Keefe: I think everybody had those concerns throughout this. There was so much uncertainty. At the same time, while we have and had a job to do — to continue to prepare for a return and use the time we had appropriately — I think we all, throughout this, have had our attention in other areas knowing that there is so much more bigger than the game that we had to get right. We were learning so much about the virus and the impact it was having on the world. That was everybody’s priority — to try and learn and educate ourselves.
As time has passed and there has been more education about what we are dealing with and how to manage it, we can see here in Ontario and in Canada that we have done a really good job and we are benefitting from that here now as an organization. We have been able to run and operate Phase 2 here very efficiently. Obviously, we are going to be a hub city and we are looking for that to continue. These two weeks have been very important for us as a team to do what we can to go into that hub and safe zone situation healthy.
But there was great concern that we weren’t going to be able to come back and return. Fortunately, we are in this position now because of the work of the NHL, the NHLPA, all of our medical people across the league, and the work of the players to take care of themselves. We are grateful to have a chance to get back and do what we do. We’ll look to get through these two weeks and get a chance to entertain people again.
Given the circumstances, how differently have you designed this camp compared to ones you might have designed previously as a coach?
Keefe: There are a lot of different circumstances here — not just the virus situation, but the fact that you are coming back into the playoffs, and the fact that you know the opponent you are going to be playing. Those are all very unique circumstances. To my knowledge, no one in hockey has ever dealt with such situations. We’re trying to put together a camp that can handle that and deal with it appropriately, and still get done what you need to get done.
Obviously, there are roster limitations. The number of players you can bring in is different than a normal camp. There are elements of camp — in terms of what you see today with us minimizing the amount of rest a player would get in the sessions by going with three lines instead of four, and the scrimmages with two lines — that are pieces I really like in the early going of camp. You can really get up to speed and push yourself to really fight through fatigue and challenge yourself in a way that your conditioning and things you would’ve done prior to camp likely wouldn’t have done. Those are the elements I really like.
It has been a challenge to come up with a format that works given the circumstances we are under. We like our plan, but it also is one that is very fluid. We will look to re-assess after the end of every day. We expect to see a lot of moving parts in terms of how we will manage things day-to-day throughout.