After the final practice before the team enters the bubble on Sunday, Sheldon Keefe provided a team progress report through camp, discussed his bottom-six lines, and described his anticipation for what is to come as Phase 4 gets underway.
The 30 man roster is also now known; the main takeaways are that Nick Robertson is one of the 30 with a real shot at a Game 1 lineup spot, while the other final forward spot went to Nic Petan over some of the other depth-forward competitors in the mix (Adam Brooks, Kenny Agostino).
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) July 25, 2020
You are two weeks into this and you are set to enter the bubble on Sunday. Did the club meet your expectations in terms of the intensity and level of competition through the two weeks?
Keefe: In terms of the effort and the work that the guys put in, they definitely met their expectations there. As coaches normally do, in your head, you set really high and probably unrealistic expectations in terms of the execution and the detail of how everything would be and would look. I think that is something that takes time, naturally. It is difficult to do when you are playing head-to-head against your own teammates, especially with the playoffs on the horizon. You aren’t wanting to be the one that injures one of your own guys.
All of those kinds of things took away from some of the detail that was required and that is why the exhibition game — we hope and expect — will solve some of those problems for us and get us up to speed to be as prepared as possible for what is to come.
What does Nick Robertson have to do against Montreal to show he is ready to play when the playoffs start?
Keefe: I think he needs to look comfortable. He needs to make an impact on the game, be it through his work ethic and enthusiasm and ability to create offense. and capitalize when he gets a chance — all of those kinds of things. We are really just looking to see if he can look like himself and be able to play in what I suspect is going to be the highest calibre and highest level game he has played in.
He hasn’t played in an NHL exhibition game here yet, and this is going to be not just an NHL exhibition game but one that is full of NHL players, which you don’t always get in exhibition games — especially the first one. We are looking to see if he can be comfortable and himself and see how it sort itself out in terms of our other players. There is more happening here that we are evaluating and doesn’t involve Nick.
How badly are you looking forward to the exhibition game? John Tortorella was saying he is tired of the scrimmages within his own team and that it isn’t really telling him that much. How much are you looking forward to the game against Montreal?
Keefe: I am looking forward to it. I am looking forward to the whole environment — everything from just getting into the hotel tomorrow and just trying to get comfortable and get a feel for what that environment is going to be like there. The biggest question of all: What is it going to feel like being on the ice, or on the bench, in the game environment within the arena? That is the biggest question mark and perhaps the biggest adjustment that is left to be made.
The final thing is just the chance to compete against another team — an opponent that is trying to get themselves prepared just the same. We are excited about that, and of course, really starting to focus in on our opponent in Columbus. That is an exciting component in itself.
Have you settled on a fourth line in the back of your mind or is that something that is still working itself out?
Keefe: I am still working through that. I think we have decisions to make here in terms of our bottom six and how that shakes out, and how one decision might affect another. We are just trying to keep all of our options open. Today, between Engvall and Spezza, we wanted to get them some reps at center ice — playing low in the defensive zone, and those responsibilities that come with it.
We want to remain as flexible as possible and remain as prepared as possible for any decision that we might make or anything that might happen that is outside of our control that forces us to make a lineup change. That is really what this is about. We haven’t made any decisions here yet. We don’t have to yet.
Looking at the exhibition game and being able to dress different players, we still don’t have to make a decision for Tuesday. Things can sort themselves out there for us. Ultimately, by the time the puck drops for Game 1, we’ll, of course, settle on a group that we like.
You spoke about club’s play at five on five getting into the offensive zone. Are you happy with what you have accomplished to that end over these two weeks?
Keefe: We feel pretty good about some of the subtle differences we’ve talked about offensively. The main focus of our camp has been the defensive elements that we want to make strides in. We think we are inching closer to what we’d like that to look like. We’re anxious to see it in an exhibition game environment against another opponent. That will help us as well, while, of course, knowing it’s Columbus we are playing and there are going to be differences with how that will play out given the nature of the opponent. We’ll adjust to that.
Fundamentally, we hope to see things really jump out for our team in all areas.
What questions do you hope to answer with the exhibition game?
Keefe: One is the conditioning level of the group and seeing how we get through that in a game environment — playing three full periods, stop time, all of that. I’ve got to manage that by looking at our best guys; I want to try to make sure I get them the appropriate minutes to prepare them for what is to come while not overdoing it and putting them in bad spots. That is a challenge in making sure we handle that right.
We’re wanting to see what we are able to bring forward from the camp to the ice. Also, what is it going to feel like being in that environment in terms of not having fans and all of those types of things? Those are important questions to get answered. We are fortunate to be able to have at least that one game to get it sorted out.
Where are you at with your packing to go into the bubble?
Keefe: My wife has helped to really set aside a lot of things for me to be able to choose from. I have a pretty good sense of what I’d like to do in terms of the packing, but it is going to be a challenge for me not to overpack and keep it a little simpler and make sure I have the things that I need. I do tend to overpack for a lot of road trips just to give myself options, but I want to stay a little bit lighter in this case and not overthink it.
What are you most curious about with life in the bubble? You are going to be spending a lot of time together with the team. What are you most curious about?
Keefe: I guess in terms of how it is going to flow given that you’ve got so many teams occupying the same hotel in the same space. We are just going through some of the logistics and the simple facts — the elevators, there are going to be restrictions on how many people are going to be allowed in at a time, and the nature of the practices.
With the practice arena here, there will be some overlaps. You’ve got teams that are wanting to leave at the same time. Moving around the hotel itself will be challenging. It’s just getting a feel for all of that.
The big thing is we have tried to remain very flexible. We have a general plan of what we want to do with timelines and all of that, but all the way through it — particularly this first week — we are going to be making a lot of adjustments along the way as we learn about what is possible and what makes the most sense given the circumstances.
What will tomorrow look like? Are you skating? Are you all going to the hotel together? How does the process unfold?
Keefe: We are not going to skate tomorrow. We had an earlier practice today to try to get the guys out of the building earlier than we had been given we had been going at about 3 or 4 p.m. We tried to get out of the building and spend as much time with their families as they can.
Everybody does have to come in and be tested in the morning. We come in for a final test here in Phase 3. We are going to let them go back home. We are not going into the bubble until later in the evening or tomorrow night. We will come back together late evening and we will bus in there together.
In such a unique situation, what is your final message going to be to the team as you go into this bubble?
Keefe: The message all along, even as we went through the pause and all of the uncertainty that was associated with it, is just to expect the unexpected and be comfortable being uncomfortable. That is a big part of it here. We’ve just got to take things as they come, not complain, keep our head down, continue to work, and be as prepared and focused as possible for the challenge ahead — in this case, for us, it is preparing to play against Columbus. That is what we have to remain focused on.
Everything else is out of our control. We’ve put in the work here over the last couple of weeks — and even further back, if you look at Phase 2 — to be prepared as we can be for the physical demands of what is to come. For the mental part of it now, we just have to remain focused on what we can control.