After practice on Tuesday, Sheldon Keefe discussed loading up lines situationally, the play of Nick Robertson on a line with Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman returning to camp, and preparing for early game times once the playoff tournament begins.
Besides after penalty kills, when do you like to load up lines? Is there a time in the game you usually feel compelled to use it?
Keefe: I usually just get a feel for what is happening in the game, the energy levels of the players, icings, TV timeouts — all of those types of things. Any time you have an opportunity to reset your lines and guys are fresh, you just kind of look to do that and build some positive momentum.
Do you think it gives you an extra weapon to play with in the playoffs?
Keefe: It is no secret we have really good offensive players, so we do have lots of opportunities there. That is a nice thing as a coach and it is why we are trying different things and making guys comfortable and making them aware that things could change at any time, and to be comfortable with that.
I see lots of benefits from it. Obviously, it keeps the opposition on their toes, but most importantly, I think it gives our guys a boost and it is a change that can get things going. It is on me to manage that and make sure I pick the right spots and I don’t overdo it. You do have to have a balance of consistency and chemistry and all of those things. I do think there is a lot of value in mixing it up and keeping people on their toes.
What do you like most about the Muzzin-Holl pairing?
Keefe: Two big guys that have got good sticks. Holl defends very well with his skating and his reach. Muzzin has those pieces as well but has the extra physicality to it. We used them in a lot of defensive roles in some tough matchups and they did well with it. It has just been something we have found a good degree of consistency with. We don’t see a reason to mess with that.
Is there a game or two from this season in particular where you thought they did an excellent job shutting down a top line?
Keefe: I can’t remember specifically other than to say it was one real giant leap for Justin Holl, in particular… I mean, Jake Muzzin has had tough matchups and has had prominent roles throughout his career, and certainly in the last number of years. But Justin Holl took a real step for me when we were out in Edmonton and he had to play a lot against McDavid. That was a real big test and challenge, of course, for anybody in the league. He did very well. I think his confidence really took off from that point.
As much as I can remember that game because there were some moments in the game where I thought he did a really good job against an elite player, it was just that he was able to find a level of consistency in his own game to be able to stay with it and have a number of positive games. Everybody is going to have bad nights or what have you, but the difference from his best to his worst wasn’t massive. He was just finding himself.
Given his age and how long he has been around and all of those things, you lose sight of the fact that he is still gaining experience. As that sample grew, you just learn to trust him that much more.
How great is it to think you’re finally going to play a game next week? Where do you think you are at in terms of how a simulated game goes? Columbus is playing a simulated game tonight as part of their scrimmage.
Keefe: We feel pretty good. We had our simulated game on Sunday. We will have another one here on Thursday. We feel pretty good about the work we’ve been able to get in in the game environments. As much as we are doing that here, it is really difficult to replicate what it is really going to be like. The exhibition game will be a positive step in that direction, but of course, we know that in itself isn’t going to be anywhere close to what we are going to see in the first playoff game.
That is what we have in front of us. We are trying to take advantage of it as best we can. We are starting to get to the point now where we are starting to adjust our schedule to reflect a little bit more of what we are going to see starting next week. We are going to practice tomorrow at 3 p.m. We’ve got our schedule ahead of us and it looks like we are going to have our three practice days in our first week or so that are going to fall around 3 p.m. Of course, we play Game 2 of the series at 4 p.m., so we will play at 4 p.m. Thursday.
We aren’t so concerned about the 8 p.m. starts knowing it’s pretty standard — 7, 7:30, 8:00 are pretty similar. Our exhibition game is at 8 p.m., so we aren’t too concerned about that part of it. We play at 12 p.m. on Sunday, which is a possibility for us throughout the series. We’ll get one at 4 p.m. and an exhibition game at 8 p.m. We are getting all of those things in and we’ll be ready.
Zach Hyman was saying, even though he missed a couple of days of camp, it felt a lot longer for him mentally. Do you think just given the condensed format that it is more of a detriment to have missed time in this instance than maybe in another?
Keefe: Every day is really important here. I am less concerned about somebody like Zach, who first of all put in a lot of really good work in Phase 2 and was probably ahead of most others here just as the natural worker that he is. We had put an extra forward in our practice today just to be able to give Zach the freedom to take some reps off if he wasn’t feeling good or needed a little bit of a break. We didn’t want to overwork it, but not to my surprise, he didn’t take anything off. He just worked his way through it and pushed right to the very end. In the conditioning skate at the end, he was a real leader for us there. I am not too concerned about it with him.
What sort of progress have you seen from the special teams units? Are you happy with how they are moving ahead through this process?
Keefe: I am. We are starting to see things really come together there. I thought in the scrimmage we had — the simulated game on Sunday — we started to see some positive things. I thought today was our best day. We kept the focus today more on the power play. We had been doing a little bit of both and mixing it up with the power play and penalty kill.
For those who aren’t on the power play — Mikheyev and those types of guys — they were still getting their penalty kill work. The focus was more on the power play today. We’ll have a little more penalty kill focus tomorrow and keep building.
When Nick Robertson has played with Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen, how do you think he has fit in with those guys?
Keefe: I think he has done well. I thought his game the other day was good. They had some really good shifts. You could see the potential for the line to be tenacious and on the puck and all of those kinds of things. That is a big part of Nick’s game as it is with Kerf and Kappy. That is what we wanted to see. They hadn’t had a practice together, which is why I wanted to keep them together today — to just kind of see where that can go.
A lot of it at this point is just trying to give Nick as many experiences as we can and see where it goes. I am pretty comfortable with Pierre Engvall and the job he has done in that spot. We are trying to take advantage of the days that we have and give Nick those opportunities.
Is there anything you can do to mimic being a visitor in your own building ahead of time?
Keefe: That is going to be quite challenging. I think we have enough time next week where we are going to get that feeling — certainly in the exhibition game. I am pretty certain, with the way it looks, we are lined up to be the visiting team for that game, which means we won’t be in our locker room. We are going to get a pretty good taste of that there.
Just the way that things will work with the practice sessions and living in the hotel within our own city, all of that stuff is going to be strange enough as it is. We will have a good week or so to prepare for that environment.
In the next phase, will you be using your dressing room at Ford Performance Center or in a different room?
Keefe: I am not certain on that, to be honest. We have been talking about things back and forth and I am not sure how that has shaken out. There is lots of space in this facility, but it feels up pretty quickly with 12 teams. I am not sure how they are going to be divvying all of that up or what they have decided on that. All of the people on our staff haven’t been focused on that side of it; the NHL has taken care of all of that.