Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after practice on Friday, discussing Ilya Mikheyev’s potential impact in the playoffs, John Tavares’ form in camp, and the options on defense.
For a guy who has never played in the playoffs before, and given what he has gone through with his injury, what impact do you think Ilya Mikheyev is going to have for your team? Does it feel like a bonus to get him back and to have this chance for him to be back out there with you?
Keefe: It is obviously a great addition for us. It was a big loss when he left the lineup. Of course, it coincided with losing Andreas Johnsson right around that time as well. Those are big holes for us. We are still without Mango here, of course, but having Mikheyev back and seeing how good he is doing…
Frankly, just before the pause, he was right on the cusp of returning and he was looking good in skates there, too. He has put in a lot of work. He has been afforded a lot of extra time here and he has been taking advantage of it. He loves being at the arena and being at the gym. He really has taken advantage of this time and really hasn’t taken much time away from it.
I am sure he is hungry as anybody given that, A) he is returning from injury; B) he has been working a long time to be prepared for this.
Given the circumstances of how you came into the job partway into the season, how has this break provided you and your staff with a chance to get to know your team better? Is this almost like a second season for you given you kind of get an idea of what the personality of your team is, and your team knows what you want?
Keefe: I certainly looked at it as a great advantage for us. We didn’t have that for myself coming in. For the players, we didn’t have as much time to really sit down and tackle all of the areas we wanted to improve upon. I think it is way different when you come in mid-season and you’ve got to try to capture your team.
In my case, you show up, you’ve got a morning skate, and you’re playing that night. From there, you’re traveling onto the next city and playing the next game. It seems like that cycle really doesn’t stop much. We took advantage very well of the All-Star Break in addressing things there, but this is a whole other animal.
We’ve been able to spend months now not just getting to know our team but having lots of great meetings as a coaching staff to really come up with what we believe is the right structure and system for our team to work and have greater clarity in how we communicate and work as a group of five and how it ties into our offense.
Is there a slight edge of a home-ice advantage for your team?
Keefe: I don’t really see any ice advantage or anything like that. With the fact that we are playing in our building, there is, of course, some familiarity. But at the same time, it is going to be a little extra strange, especially when you are on the other side and not dressing in our locker room and we’re on a different bench.
Frankly, when it comes to playoff time, I think home-ice advantage, even when there are fans in the building is debatable. The game is played on the ice no matter where it is, and when the puck is dropped, we are going to have to be ready just the same. There are some advantages, of course, that we don’t have to travel and we’re right here and we’re familiar with the city and all of that, but it is going to be a little bit weird almost being a guest in your own home.
We are just excited to have a chance to play again and we think all of these things will sort themselves out by the time the puck drops. It is going to be even terms for everybody.
What role did John Tavares play in keeping the group engaged during this long layoff and also in talking to you and the coaching staff about maximizing Phase 2?
Keefe: He played a big role, as did the rest of our leadership group. We were in consistent contact all throughout it. We tried to keep in contact between myself and Paul McFarland and Dave Hakstol and our training staff. Of course, we had regular contact with our players.
As Phase 2 was announced and what the parameters were for it, I think there was a real push from our leadership group to take advantage of it. We were fortunate that we had a lot of eager people who came in early and took advantage of the work. That is why we feel like we are a little bit ahead here now in terms of how we are able to push our guys and the length of time we are able to keep them on the ice. The game action and the special teams action we’ve already been able to work at.
Frankly, it is not just in preparing for the event, but we need the extra time. I feel like we have got a lot of things we need to improve upon. We have made a number of changes within how we are playing and it takes some time to adapt to that. I think a lot of teams are just going to pick up from where they left off, but we have to make some really clear adjustments and improvements within our game. We need the extra time, and we are fortunate the players put in the work to allow us to do that.
John Tavares said he wasn’t as consistent as he would’ve liked in the regular season. Of course, he had the oblique issue last summer. What are you seeing from him so far in camp and what are you expecting from him in the playoffs?
Keefe: I think he looks excellent, first of all. I do think he is healthy. He had a few different things that were nagging at him throughout the season. The time off has really benefited him. He has also put in a lot of work away from the ice even before Phase 2 began. He was really set up in terms of the training he had been doing himself. The work he has been putting in on the ice — he has really, really been working and looks excellent.
We have had him with Mitch and Mikheyev within the Phase 2 groups all the way through. Those guys, really, just haven’t missed a beat.
In terms of the depth guys in the lineup, when you separate them into reserves, what kind of message are you sending to them in doing that in order to keep them engaged?
Keefe: I met with most of these guys individually, along with a lot of our guys that are in the main group, just to remind everybody that we haven’t made any decisions, first of all. The group can change from day-to-day. We have at least four scrimmages remaining as long as we like our plan and stay with it all the way through, which I believe we will.
Everybody has an opportunity to continue to impress and all of those things. At the same time, we don’t know what we are going to be up against here and what we will face in terms of injuries or whatever the circumstances might be. We really have to be prepared for anything.
Those guys have got to stay hungry. They continue to be important to us. That is why I and our coaching staff went out and ran that practice and made sure those guys were up to speed in the things we were teaching today just knowing that they are important to us. We recognize we are going to need more than just the guys that were on the ice in the main practice group. We have to make sure a larger group than that is prepared to continue to push our guys and also be prepared in the event that we need them.
Do you think the group benefitted from not being on the ice yesterday?
Keefe: When we looked at the schedule, we thought three days on and one day off would be a pretty good pattern for us to follow, and that we were going to really work the guys. They’ve really been in their gear at least an hour and a half each day. Really long days for them. They also skated Thursday-Friday and Sunday before getting into the camp. They have been on the ice a fair bit.
We felt the day off was important. It also gave us a chance to move into the next phase for our group here, which is obviously going to one practice group here. I thought we had our best day on the ice in terms of having four lines and eight defensemen. It was more of a traditional practice setting in that sense and we got some good work done.
You had Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci together before the pause. Do you feel that by changing their role a little bit after the break, they can find success?
Keefe: Yeah, that is what I am hoping. Muzzin and Holl have really established themselves well in terms of taking on the real tough matchups. We are comfortable with that. We are going to give them that opportunity here. But we also just like that it, first of all, keeps us in lefty-righty pairings. It spreads it out a little bit.
We also just think that there is some real benefit to having Ceci with Mo to have him use his strengths and be active and all of those types of things. Ceci is staying home a little more and being responsible in that sense. The same thing [applies] with Dermott and Barrie with what that does.
We are not locked into any of this stuff. In fact, in Phase 2, we had Dermott paired with Rielly and we were giving Derms a lot of reps playing on the right side. I think that is important as well to have that option and that ability. Derms is comfortable there and can be comfortable there if we decide to make a change, but between Dermott or Barrie moving up with Rielly, we feel we have the ability to do that. We like this spread for now.
Is that something you might play around with in the scrimmages?
Keefe: Potentially, yeah. We are going to see how it goes in the next little bit. We expect the competitiveness of the scrimmages will increase each time out here. That will give us a little bit better of an indication. I do think, at some point here, not just with the D but the forward lines, we’ll move things around a bit.