Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after the team’s scrimmage on Sunday, discussing his new line combinations with Zach Hyman out, William Nylander at center ice, defenseman Teemu Kivihalme’s contract extension, and how the pandemic is affecting player development in the offseason.
Team Matthews lines
Tavares – Matthews – Marner
Mikheyev – Nylander – Brooks
Agostino – Gaudet – Hollowell
Sandin – Ceci
Marincin – Barrie
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) July 19, 2020
Team Andersen lines
Robertson – Kerfoot – Kapanen
Clifford – 🐐- Spezza
Engvall – Petan – Korshkov
Muzzin – Holl
Rielly – Dermott
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) July 19, 2020
What was your biggest observation of today’s scrimmage as you watched from above?
Keefe: I just thought the pace was a lot faster. It was a lot more competitive. Everything that was done, every stride, had a little bit of extra push to it. The puck was moving a lot quicker. There were just a lot of those things that we expected to happen today.
We had a talk with the team and told them it is time that things move really go up another level here, but also, we didn’t practice today, so they aren’t starting a scrimmage on half a tank or an empty tank going into it. We also built in some additional rest with the TV timeouts and tried to have it more similar to a game environment there, in particular with how it could impact the special teams’ work we were doing. We ensured the power play was always able to start a little bit fresher.
I thought all of those things combined to have an increased pace to the game.
You tinkered with the lines a little bit, specifically with Tavares – Matthews – Marner. Tyson Barrie called it an All-Star line. What do you think is the biggest benefit of having a line like that with all of your weapons at your disposal?
Keefe: Obviously, they are three very good players. I have used them at different times in a game. I suspect it is something I would want to go back to at different times. Here now is a chance to get them some reps. An opportunity arises with Hyman coming out and being unfit to come in and play today. We wanted to sue that chance to mix things up and try some different things. Between the three of them playing together and getting JT some time on the wing, it helped us. We also got a look at Nylander in the middle at the same time and give him a chance to have some time there. I thought that served its purpose.
Through the three exhibition games now — or scrimmages — is there a line or pairing or player that has stood out to you to the point where it has changed your thinking?
Keefe: I wouldn’t say that necessarily. I think we are still in the phase here where we are allowing players time to work their way through it. We are just completing, really, the first week of camp. We are going to move into next week now and have at least two scrimmages similar to what you saw today. There is some time there. We expect that things will continue to be even more competitive — maybe a little more difficult on Tuesday because we will practice on Tuesday, but on Wednesday, it will look a lot more like what you saw today. Actually, I got that backward — our Wednesday will have a practice and our Thursday will be like today.
Throughout that process, we think things will really start to settle in in terms of what we are seeing from guys. From one day to the next, it is a little bit all over the place. That is why you don’t make too many decisions in the first week.
What is your level of concern that Zach Hyman won’t be available for Game 1?
Keefe: I would say low at this point, but you never quite know. We are going to see what this is. I am not even sure what I’m supposed to say or can say or what have you, but I am not too concerned.
Teemu Kivihalme signed a contract extension yesterday. Can you talk a little bit about his development over the past year coming from overseas?
Keefe: He is a guy that despite coming from overseas, he was playing professionally and he had a lot of experience playing in North America. He played college hockey in the U.S. and he is a guy that lives in Minnesota. We have that part of it.
In my time with him with the Marlies, I really started to appreciate a lot of things about his game — in particular, how he uses his skating, which is really, really strong. It’s his greatest asset. He utilizes it to defend, something we have talked with him to try to do. I think he’s always seen himself as a guy who skates up the puck and is involved in the offense, but there are a lot of things that can happen with guys who can skate as well as he does that can really become an asset defending. Calle Rosen is similar in nature in his development. We like that about him. You can never have enough depth on defense.
With those final scrimmages, do you plan to go back to something a little more regular in terms of the line combinations? Once we get to Thursday, do we start to see the lineup that we will see in Game 1 against Columbus?
Keefe: I wouldn’t say that, necessarily. We’ve got time to tinker. We are going to have a plan by the time Game 1 comes around, but one of the things that I like is the ability to move things around. You look for opportunities to do that. Hyman comes out, so all of a sudden, you’ve got to move things anyway. It is a natural chance to try different things. When you try different things, you start to get more ideas because you see what can work potentially.
I don’t think I’ll ever want to be too locked into anything. I think I’d like to keep our players on their toes as well, but in doing so, it is important they have a level of comfort with any of the people you might be trying them with. That is why you see some of the things that we did today in terms of Nylander and Mikheyev and those three [Tavares – Matthews – Marner] together on one line. All of that gives us additional options to be able to remain flexible.
What is your sense of Rasmus Sandin’s game through a week at this camp?
Keefe: I think he is finding his way here. Despite the fact that he was skating and all of those things, for all of the European players when they came over here, they had to quarantine and couldn’t do much of anything. In that process, you lose probably most of what you had gained. It is amazing how quickly some of that stuff will go away, but he is finding his way back here. Every day, he seems to be getting more and more comfortable.
Today, he looked really good in terms of how he was moving the puck and all of those things. The more he has the puck and is playing with his head up and finding the forwards and launching our attack, it is a pretty good indication to me that he is coming around. Today was the most I saw of that.
What was your impression of William Nylander in the middle of the ice? What sort of scenarios, if you are game planning, might you deploy him in that role?
Keefe: I thought he did well. He had the puck a great deal today offensively. Coming up through the middle of the ice, he is a lot more dangerous that way. We liked that part of it. He and his line had the puck and were on offense a lot, so he didn’t have to defend a great deal. Of course, that is something that would take the most time for him to be comfortable with. He has played center before. It is not a big adjustment for him, I don’t think.
In terms of what I see or what might have to see for us to go to it a little more long term, I don’t have that answer. I think I just kind of react to what is happening. I think we will see him shift back to the wing here going forward, but it is nice to have that option.
Do you worry at all about Frederik Andersen’s confidence when he’s seeing the puck go in pretty often in the scrimmage?
Keefe: That is part of it, yeah. You’d like to see it not go in as much. On a day like today, Fred is an experienced and smart enough guy to know there are a number of those that he has no chance on. What I thought was really great was that he really stood tall and made the save of the game there late. For him to stay in the game and stay focused to be able to make such a save was a really good and healthy sign for us.
I am not too concerned about anything that is happening in these scrimmages. Whether it is the goalie or any of our players, they have enough mental toughness and intelligence to be able to shrug these things off and stay moving forward with their preparation.
In terms of evaluating chemistry, do the scrimmages help with some of the new line combinations you’re trying?
Keefe: I think the scrimmages help for sure. There is the on-ice chemistry and the things you see on the ice, but a big part of chemistry is communication and a chance to sit next to each other on the bench and talk. At the end of your shift, you are gliding back to the bench and starting to discuss what just happened. That is some of where the real chemistry comes from.
The on-ice stuff tends to sort of take care of itself, I find. Just being around each other is a big piece of it. I think that is why it is important, especially when you are going into a playoff environment where you don’t know what you are going to face. The opposition has its challenges, of course, with the ups and downs of a playoff series, but also, with injuries and any type of circumstance that might alter lineup, you try to reduce any sort of shock or doubt that might bring by trying to create those situations as much as you can in the practice and scrimmage settings.
As a coach who has developed so many young players or helped to anyway, how much have you worried or considered that this pandemic is affecting a whole bunch of kids from developing by not getting their summer reps in? How much does it affect player development?
Keefe: Just in terms of how it impacts the development of prospects and young players, I think it is an excellent question and easy to forget about with all of the attention being on this event. That is something that is not lost on our organization — and I suspect every other organization in the league is no different.
This is valuable time that players are missing. Teams didn’t get to have their development camps that would’ve already happened by this time where we are bringing players in, talking to them, getting a chance to work with them on the ice, and making those connections and relationships. You’ve lost that.
Our player development staff have done a terrific job in adapting to the situation and utilizing Zoom as every industry is. That department is no different than any other department in our organization and has adapted. But it is valuable time, for sure.
Of course, it is relative because there is really no difference [between teams] and it is not like the competition is getting a leg up on you or anything. It is the same for everybody. That is the same for the draft and the scouting that goes with that. We didn’t get a chance to evaluate players in the playoffs or World Championships — whatever it might be. All of that stuff is still even, but I think there will be some effects there for sure that will take some time to make up for the lost time.
The protocols get a little more stringent here in the last week before you enter the bubble. How often are you reiterating your message to the players about health and safety, and what kinds of things are you telling them?
Keefe: We spoke about it before the camp began and then gave reminders yesterday. We spoke about it again. A lot of those reminders come from different departments other than the coaches in terms of whether it is Kyle or our medical department. Today, we talked about it briefly just as a reminder that this is part of the process of here and we are all in this together in the sense that we’ve got to be very responsible.
Our actions here now, if we don’t take every precaution to remain healthy and safe, will compromise what we are trying to do as a team and potentially the event as a whole. It is very important that we remain diligent. Our players have done a really excellent job at this point.
It becomes a little bit more difficult here now, but there is light at the end of the tunnel here knowing that we are not far away from entering the safe environment here within Toronto. The protocols that have been in place here have really set the stage for all of that, and the players have followed it well. We expect they will continue to.