After practice on Wednesday, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed the Columbus Blue Jackets’ defensive play, Nick Robertson’s shot and progression throughout camp, and the valuable experience Jason Spezza brings to the organization.
#Leafs lines/pairs appear unchanged from yesterday:
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) July 22, 2020
When you think of the Columbus Blue Jackets, what comes to mind about how they derive their success? What challenge does that present to you guys to try to counter?
Keefe: There are a few things, but one that stands out: how they defend. They are an elite defensive team. They are number one in the NHL in a lot of categories defensively — if not number one, they’re not far behind. Obviously, they have belief in how they play and what they are capable of doing, which was only reinforced in the playoffs last season and what they were able to accomplish. They have a lot belief in what they do and who they are as a team. As a result, they make it really hard on you.
Kasperi Kapanen was saying he expects a lot from himself in the playoffs. What have your impressions been of him through the first bit of this camp?
Keefe: He has gotten better every single day in terms of how he looks and also just the energy he is playing with and practicing with. We all know that is such a big part of his game. When he is playing with energy and he has pop in his step, he is a much different player. He has been bringing that a lot more here in the last little while. He has found a nice groove and we obviously want him to stay within that and keep building on it.
There was less scoring today. What were your impressions of the scrimmage?
Keefe: We wanted to have greater quality today in the scrimmage, which is why we reduced the volume by keeping it at one period. As it turned out, we needed to play a little overtime, but we wanted to increase the quality. I thought some of the execution, perhaps, wasn’t great, but the effort and the pace and all of those kinds of things were really good.
The fact that the score stayed close meant the benches were into it and there was some good energy that way. The goaltending on both sides was terrific, which allowed everything to stay close and be competitive. I thought we got a lot out of what we were hoping to today.
Has anything about the way Nick Robertson is able to get his shot off stuck out to you so far?
Keefe: I think what has stood out is that he hasn’t been able to get it off very often. That would probably be the biggest difference. When you watch him in practice and things like that, you can see that it is a real strength of his. The challenge is adjusting to this level. There is not as much time to get it off. Sticks get in the way and bodies get in the way. Positionally, guys are better, and of course, the goalies are better.
I have noticed that with him. In the first couple of scrimmages, he didn’t have a shot on goal. It has taken a little while to get up to speed. He seems to be getting more involved and getting more shots. He had a couple of good ones today. Being on the power play helped that.
It is a great weapon of his. It is unexpected, is the big thing. Of course, at the junior level it has become pretty well known, but it is unexpected because usually with players of his size and age, the puck doesn’t come off the stick like that for too many players. He has a great weapon there with that.
Along those lines, what is the difference in trying to find soft spots in the NHL versus the OHL?
Keefe: The difference is that the soft spots are a lot tighter here and a lot harder to find because the gaps close that much quicker. It is the speed and the size of the players, and also positionally, their sticks and how they read the game — you are dealing with the best of the best, right? At lower levels, you get guys that have some of the things I just listed, but maybe they don’t read the play as well, so they don’t get there, or whatever it is.
You are dealing with the best of the best in the NHL. In the last little while here, we have moved him up to be playing with and against some of our best guys. We are giving him that feel. That is part of the adjustment.
That is really where we have been at here with Nick: trying to find ways to give him increased experience. Every other player that is in this camp has had experience and has played in the NHL, and played in the minors and all of those things. They know what to expect from those experiences. We, in a lot of senses, have an idea of what to expect from them. Nick is the wildcard here in terms of what he can bring and how quickly he can adapt and adjust. We had to be able to give them those opportunities to see how quickly he can get up to speed.
Do you seed him adapting day by day?
Keefe: Yeah, I do. I have seen some positive steps for sure. It has been really positive. Early on, it was a little bit slower for him, but it seems the more experience and opportunity we have given him, he has done well with it.
A lot of his linemates and teammates have mentioned he has added competitiveness and jump to the camp. Are you taking some of that into consideration when you make your final decision — the effect he has had up and down the lineup?
Keefe: Yes, I am. All of the things that are being talked about are true and he is bringing that. It is probably a little bit overstated given the fact that he is a topic of great interest and a lot of the questions are being asked. We’ve got a lot of other players doing a lot of really good things just the same.
There has been a lot of attention on Nick there. We recognize why that is the case. But certainly, with his work ethic and the things that he brings, he is really pushing all of our guys to make sure they are sharp on every single rep. That is a great quality to have in a young player and it’s something we really value and are happy to see.
That, of course, is only part of the game. By the time the puck drops in Game 1 of the playoffs, everybody is going to be competing at a very high level.
The sacrifices you are making in going into this bubble… Every guy and every team is making them, but some are making bigger sacrifices — guys like Jason Spezza — and their families are making sacrifices. Have you guys thought about that? Is it more inspiration for the older guys to play knowing that they are giving up so much more than the younger guys?
Keefe: Sacrifice is a tough word to associate with what we are doing here. We have got great opportunity to do what we all loved to do and be a part of the game and compete for the Stanley Cup and to be part of bringing the game back for people. Everybody in all walks of life and all areas of life have sacrifices they are making and there are far greater sacrifices happening around the world than what we are doing.
We have a great opportunity here. We are focused and feel fortunate that we have a chance to be able to do what we love to do and be able to entertain people. We are not focused too much on the sacrifices.
When it comes to the family, of course, we sensitive to it and are trying to do all that we can to help with that. But we are not billing this as a sacrificing or anything like that. We are just excited about a chance to play.
Now that you have had ample opportunity to see the personality of this team, what role do you predict Jason Spezza will be filling for the guys, especially off the ice and behind the scenes?
Keefe: Definitely, one thing that really stands out is how he has really stepped up during this time. I think he has taken on a great leadership role — not just within our team, but around the league. He has done a lot of work for the Players Association and the players in general around the league to help get things up and running and be informed and able to share information with players. That’s not just our team, but with the league.
He is a veteran player in the league and has experienced a lot of different things. He is a guy that is passionate about the game and also passionate about his game and his career and having another shot to compete for the Cup.
He is also is just a great voice within our team through his experience — and not all positive experiences. In some cases, he reflects on his career as a young, elite player — not unlike what we have here — and is able to relate to those guys and talk to them about what he had done in his career or what he maybe would’ve done differently. All of those types of experience and knowledge that he brings are valuable to us.
We saw Andreas Johnsson on the ice before practice. Can you update us on what the plan is for him? Will he be a part of your group in the bubble?
Keefe: As it relates to his plan in terms of being eligible or able to play, I am not certain on that timeline here yet. From what I know right now, his plan is to come into the bubble with us. He has been skating — I want to say — for a better part of a month now on the ice. That has been a real positive sign for us, and the fact that he has come over here and has gone through his quarantine. He has been here for a while.
Chatting with him, he is in good spirits and feels good. We are happy to see him back around here, but we are going to have to be patient in terms of his timeline.