Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe joined TSN Overdrive on Monday night, discussing the experience in the bubble so far, the evaluation process for Nick Robertson as he attempts to earn a Game 1 lineup spot, the NHL’s relaxed dress code for this year’s playoffs, and the coaching matchup against John Tortorella.
There is always nervous energy going into the start of preseason or training camp, but this is a totally different animal. What was the feeling like getting off the bus with guys in masks? It’s a totally different environment. What were some of the emotions being a part of this and everything being so different?
Keefe: Today, to be honest, was the day that it hit you the hardest as to how different this is. Coming in with masks, the tests — in Phase 2 and Phase 3, that was a change, of course. Once the guys get working out and on the ice in your own facilities, it feels relatively normal. But today, there has been a lot of change and there has been a lot happening. Having seven teams plus lots of NHL staff and security and hotel staff and all of that at the hotel — this is a massive undertaking. It is a big deal.
You get to the rink and you walk into our practice facility, and all of a sudden, you’ve got 12 teams operating out of there. It’s a whole different deal. There have been a lot of things that have hit you today. This is different and we are going to have to adapt very quickly.
How many times over the last few months did you lay out different lines and sets of pairings with the vision of getting to the hub city? Did you almost have to take a step back and say, “Let’s simplify here and figure things out once we get there”?
Keefe: For sure — not so much with the line combinations necessarily, but with scheduling and laying out a plan in terms of what you are going to work on in a particular day. That was something that… The word we were using a lot was “fluid.” The situation was fluid and the schedules were fluid. We were going to have to be flexible and be able to adapt. Luckily, we have been able to do that.
We have great staff. We have had great communication all throughout. The players themselves have been excellent at adjusting at that and giving feedback and all of those types of things. Any time you are set on any type of a schedule or routine, it is going to get disrupted pretty quickly.
Today, the coaches had a plan about how we were going to work and get prepared for the day, but between breakfast and getting tested and getting your temperature taken and busing to the practice facility, security checks — all of a sudden, it is eating up a lot of your morning. You realize you have to start working a lot more through the night and really just kind of get up and get going with your day after that. There is not a lot of time to go through the work that you are used to doing.
With a couple of weeks of training camp now and your stated intention to implement some changes, how different might the team’s style of play look starting tomorrow night against Montreal?
Keefe: In terms of what we have been trying to do in the camp, I don’t know if in terms of style of play you’ll necessarily see a lot of differences, but certainly, we are looking for heightened execution. Some of the details in our defensive game have been a big focus; changing some of our structures and having greater clarity in some of the things we want to accomplish. We are expecting greater attention to detail to that.
The one factor we have to judge and see how it plays out here: Were two weeks enough time, with one exhibition game? We did do a lot of scrimmaging in exhibition-type settings in terms of watching video and having meetings before the scrimmages and reviewing the games — all stuff that the players are thinking you’re crazy if you’re doing in the regular training camp scrimmages, but you are trying to get ahead of some things.
Our expectation is that we’ll be ready to execute, but that is kind of the thing that we going to be looking at most closely: Do we get it? Can we execute it at the necessary level? Of course, there is not a lot of time to do the preparation. We have to be ready to play.
What is the percentage of defense that is a mindset and work ethic thing? It’s the best league in the world. How much explaining has to go on in the NHL to NHL players on how to play defense?
Keefe: That is a great point. It is something we have talked a lot about. Defense really is a mindset. It is just a matter of making the decision that it is important and recognizing that we can’t win if we don’t do it. We want to remain true to who we are in terms of utilizing the skill that we have and the offense that we have, but it has to be on a foundation of sound defense and keeping the puck out of our net.
That has been the clear message from the start. There are details that come within it. I’ve said before to our team and to the media that any system that is executed with great competitiveness and physicality and commitment to it is a good system. A system that doesn’t have all of those intangibles is a bad one. That is just the way it goes. We are looking for great commitment and focus from our players. We expect, when the puck drops on Sunday, that the guys will be ready to go.
Knowing the market, there is a major overreaction to everything, even in scrimmages. if Frederik Andersen lets in five goals in scrimmage, there is a panic. There is an amazing reaction when Ilya Mikheyev scores a hat trick. These scrimmages were important for preparation, but there has to be a layer of taking a step back and knowing what the guys are capable of.
Keefe: No doubt. Really, how I have looked at this is that we are not over-evaluating what is happening in our practices or scrimmages with players we know well and have played for us — in the big sample, or in a small sample if you came up from the Marlies. We have a familiarity with you as players and are making a lot of our decisions based on that history.
The one unknown for us is Nick Robertson, of course, who we don’t have a great feel for in terms of what he can do at the NHL level with and against NHL players. That is why you see us experiment with so many things and give him some extra opportunities — to be able to see it as much as we can. The exhibition game will be another chance for that.
Robertson is playing tomorrow night?
Keefe: Yes, he will be playing tomorrow night. We’ve got the opportunity to dress 13 forwards. The 13 we were practicing with mostly will play and we can dress some extra defensemen as well. There would’ve been some discussion on who that will be.
He will play tomorrow and he will get a chance. We know what to expect from our players and what they are capable of. We are expecting an even greater level of consistency and execution going forward considering what is at stake and our opportunity to have discussions and grow through this pause.
As it relates to Nick, he is a guy who we have had eyes on throughout this.
What are you looking for tomorrow night? It is a safe play? Is it someone that goes out there and makes plays? What is the message to Nick Robertson tomorrow night?
Keefe: I am just looking for him to go out and try to see how quickly he is able to be comfortable in the physicality and the competitive situations and the pace of play. Does he force the issue? Does he turn it over? Does he look like he could potentially hurt our cause? All of those types of things.
The big part is that we just have to make a decision that he is ready and we don’t put him in a situation he is not prepared for. This is not a situation where we feel like we have to force him into anything. We just want to be able to properly evaluate whether he can help what we are doing.
We have a number of other players that we have a bigger sample of at the NHL level and know what to expect from. Nick is the one for whom we have to get some of these questions answered. Tomorrow is another chance for us to do that before we really turn the page and focus solely on Columbus.
Do you believe in or think it’s possible to out-coach or be out-coached in an NHL game or playoff series?
Keefe: I think so. Coaching has a role to play. You can’t over or underestimate the fact that the players ultimately determine what is happening. As a coach, we have to make sure we never lose sight of the fact that it is about the players. It is about us preparing them to go out and play and be at their best.
In a lot of cases as a coach, I like to look at it as trying not to get in the way. What I mean by that: Don’t do anything stupid that is going to prevent them from doing at their best and doing what they need to do to win. That is how I look at this: Preparing the players to be at their best and making the right decisions throughout the game that don’t disrupt their momentum or their flow — all of those types of things.
At the same time, you need the ability to be decisive at the right time to be able to make the proper decision to pull somebody back or make a change. The timing of all of that is really important. Coaches certainly have a role to play, but when the puck drops, it is on the players.
How might that apply to the empty rink and how you are going to communicate with your players, and how you want the players to act on the bench? Has there been any messaging there? How do you think maybe the game will change or feel different given there is not going to be 20,000 people in the stadium?
Keefe: That is something we haven’t talked a great deal about. I am anxious to get a feel for that. What is an appropriate volume? Usually, in a game, you are having to yell virtually the entire game because you are trying to go over top of any sort of fan noise or whatever might be happening. Even TV timeouts, when we have a chance to talk to the team, the fans are going crazy and there are people on microphones trying to pump everybody up. The volume gets really loud and you are screaming.
I am suspecting, as a coach, it will be at an a lot more appropriate volume and a little less stress that way. We will have to see how that goes and adjust. I think that is something that will play itself out as the games get going.
With all of the talk about the relaxed dress code, have you thought about wearing a tracksuit or something behind the bench? Maybe a one-piece?
Keefe: It is a discussion that we have had and a lot of NHL coaches have had. The coaching association has talked about it. The NBA kind of set things up there. My understanding is that the NBA is not wearing any suits. They’ve authorized just pants and a golf shirt type of thing. That kind of got the NHL coaches asking some questions about what to do.
Obviously, the whole thing on the bench is a part of it, but the other part of it is you’ve got to pack everything. How do you pack for such a long trip? It is hot outside and cold inside. You’ve got all of these different things to deal with. We had these discussions, but we just didn’t find anything that we liked and worked, so we are sticking with being traditional and going with the suits as a coaching staff. We may loosen up how we arrive to the rink and change and all of those types of things.
I do like that it is more relaxed for the players and that we are giving them a little more freedom. We were talking about the packing situation and not having to pack and manage the suits and all of that kind of stuff. They can just be comfortable. That has been a big thing: We want them to be comfortable.
Selfishly, too, I am kind of hoping it leaks down a little bit because I am not really enjoying putting my 8-year-old in a shirt and a tie when he goes out to minor hockey, too. Maybe some of that kind of stuff can start within our game.
You have a history with John Tortorella. You played for him briefly in Tampa. He has been around forever. This is the classic old school vs. new school. For the most part, you know what you are getting out of a John Tortorella team. He might throw a few curve balls at you, but how can you use that knowledge to your own advantage, knowing the way Tortorella is likely going to approach this series?
Keefe: Really, where I think I can benefit from it is just the respect that I have for him. I lived it as a player and have seen his ability to impact a team — in particular, a developing team that is looking to, in many ways, overachieve compared to what outside people might think they are capable of. I see his ability to do that and his ability to push a team hard and get a lot out of them. I have lived that.
Of course, he wouldn’t still be coaching if he hadn’t learned to adapt and change things that he has done, but I think fundamentally, he will remain true to who he is. I think that is really how I look at it — to know his team is going to be prepared and is not going to give us anything. We are going to have to earn everything. Every time we slip up, they are going to take advantage of it.
The respect I have for him is going to ensure that we are on track in terms of our own preparation.