Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after day three of Phase 3 training camp, touching on the scrimmage format and team selections, William Nylander’s consistency, and Nick Robertson’s performance in camp so far.
Some eyebrows were raised with both of the top two lines being a part of the Matthews group. What are you hoping to accomplish when you came up with those teams? What are you hoping to accomplish with the five scrimmages?
Keefe: Obviously, it’s a little unconventional. Usually, you would take those lines and put one on each team, but this is not a conventional camp or conventional times. We’ve got to adapt to it.
We are trying to get a lot out of these games, and keeping those guys together gives us an opportunity to not only try different things involving special teams, but we can change those lines at any time and use different combinations that we have in mind.
The other part of it is just that we’ve got the Kerfoot line and the Gauthier line, and they’re two lines that really have to work to make life hard on the opposition now with their habits and their detail and how they play. Our top guys have got to get used to playing it against guys that are hard on them. We just thought it was a way to create that environment and have a little bit of competitiveness at the same time.
How did you come up with the scrimmage format and why is it so important?
Keefe: We need to have game action as best we can to be able to really prepare ourselves to play. It is not just structural and systems things for us. There are game habits and things in the flow of the game — how you manage the puck, shift length, line changes — that are really important for us and are areas where we have to grow as a team.
It is not necessarily just things you can practice in a practice environment. We need game reps. We don’t have an exhibition season — we have one exhibition game that is right in front of a playoff series — so we have to give ourselves as many reps as we can. If we are going to do that, it has to be somewhat of a competitive environment.
That is why we set up the teams the way that we did and we created a series in terms of it being a best-of-five, which is course mirrors what we are going to face in the match up against Columbus. We just thought it made sense and we are going with it.
Jack Campbell said you had a video beforehand to get the guys fired up a little bit?
Keefe: We had a little bit of a video to get the guys going. We are playing on the Matthews and Andersen relationship and friendship that they have clearly shown. I thought it was one of the real highlights for me just in terms of our team. You see two guys taking care of each other and hanging out with each other during a tough time. Rather than being alone — certainly in Fred’s case in Toronto — Auston invited him out there. I think it is a really cool thing for our team and we are just kind of playing off of that and adding some competitiveness within this camp.
When you were binging the Maple Leafs over the pause, was there something about William Nylander’s play this season that came to light, be it something he needs to work on, or something that stood out that he needs to work on, or something you want to see more of?
Keefe: The big thing that stands out for William is just his consistency — the consistency he brings in his effort and competitiveness. When he does that, he is the player that he is capable of being. I showed him a number of different clips where he was all over the puck and winning pucks back.
One very underrated thing with William: The way that he wins the puck back in terms of takeaways in the offensive zone. He is right near the top of the league in that regard. That is just him being strong on his stick and being smart and using his skill to win the puck back. There is a whole competitive side to that as well. When he is doing that, it allows him to play with the puck that much more; he is that much more engaged.
That is what we are looking for from him: the consistency. The talent and the ability — not many players in the world can match that. He has that. We just have to see it all the time.
Do you have a theory as to why the consistency isn’t always there?
Keefe: I think it is part of Will’s nature at times to not be as engaged as you’d like him to be. He needs a push. Sometimes it comes from me, but a lot of the time it comes from himself as well because he is a guy that is hard on himself. He recognizes it when you show him the clips. A lot of the times, he doesn’t even need to see the clips. He knows the situations you’re talking about.
Just through the habits and the repetition and the environment around him… The pressure we are trying to put on all of our players to be good all the time… When I say all the time, of course, it doesn’t mean that you are going to be perfect, but it does mean that there is a sense of urgency to everything that you are doing to give yourself a chance to be good more often than not.
How has he looked this week so far?
Keefe: I think he has looked good — not just this week, but all through Phase 2. He put in a lot of work. Will is a guy who loves to be on the ice as well, so there is no questioning his work ethic and preparation off the ice and in practices or on his own personal time on the ice. He does what he needs to do to get himself prepared. I am not worried about him on that front.
Nick Robertson was saying it is taking him some time to get used to the pace here. What have you seen from him in the three days — specifically today?
Keefe: He looks like a guy who is finding his way. He is not the only one. There are lots of eyes and attention on him, but there are other guys here who are trying to find their way. He is a guy that not only is coming out of the same break and pause everyone else has had, but he is also trying to adjust to a new level, a new league, and a new environment. It is a little bit harder for him in that sense.
He is trying to find his way. There is some time here. Of course, there is probably not as much time as you would like for a young player to adjust and get comfortable, but we are going to give him more time to adapt and see whether he is an option for us as we get going into the playoffs.
Just the fact that he is here, he is an option in that sense, but there are other players competing for that spot and it will sort itself out.
There has been so much hype surrounding Nick. The hype almost seems out of control at times. How well prepared do you think Nick is to handle the hype he is aware of and to channel that into positive energy rather than let it overwhelm him?
Keefe: For sure. That is part of being a talented high-end prospect for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That is part of what comes with it, but he has earned it because he has had the season that he had in junior hockey. It is not matched by very many people in history. It’s not just what he showed he is capable of doing, but the results that he had.
He has earned that attention. It is enhanced, like everything else — like having refs at your scrimmage — in Toronto, but he has got to tune that out and just do his work. I am not concerned about him. In the discussions I have had with him, he is an extremely focused individual.
We’ve got to do our part to make him comfortable here and help him with his transition to pro hockey and this environment, but I am not worried about him. He is going to continue to work and adjust himself. It will sort itself out.
The plan had been to have officials today. What happened to that?
Keefe: Apparently, people around the NHL are paying attention to our media reports in Toronto. I think there were some people around the league who perhaps liked the idea that we had referees but didn’t like the idea they didn’t have the same available to them. We had to make an adjustment and we are perfectly fine doing that. Greg Moore has done a fantastic job for us there to keep things moving.
As you prepare to head into the bubble, besides your phone, what is something you have to bring with you?
Keefe: Oh, man. I don’t know. I am a pretty boring guy. Other than my phone, I am probably just going to bring my phone and laptop. I’ll have the electronic trifecta going and that will keep me busy enough.
We are going to be in the bubble, but we are there for a reason and a purpose. As a coach, you are going to be consumed with the task at hand. That is really all the hobbies that I need.
Did you ever end up getting a Netflix account? You took a lot of heat online for not having one.
Keefe: I did eventually. Going through that, my wife did remind me that she created an account for the family that I just never received the password or account to. I did get a chance to explore the Netflix world, and there is a lot going on there. I try not to get too deep into it, but it is an additional tool that might occupy some of my time.
What did you think of Tiger King?
Keefe: That was interesting. I took in one episode to make sure I could be up to speed on what was going on in the world and a lot of the conversations I was having with different people, but there are a lot more interesting things going on than that.