Head coach Sheldon Keefe met with the media on Monday, including an appearance on TSN Overdrive, after the first day of on-ice training camp sessions for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Keefe discusses his inclination towards the Ilya Mikheyev – Alex Kerfoot – Zach Hyman line, how he is going to manage Joe Thornton’s minutes on a line with two 20+ minute players in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the mix and depth on defense, the decision to bag skate the team and “make them uncomfortable” on day one of training camp, and why Nick Robertson remained with the team instead of heading to the World Juniors.
You mentioned Joe Thornton is going to start on a line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, which has everyone in the media talking. Take us through the thought process there and why you think it is going to work.
Keefe: The thinking behind it is a lot of things.
The first thing is, when we looked at it, we really wanted to give a shot to a line of Kerfoot, Hyman, and Mikheyev. If you look back shortly after I was hired, we put Hyman with Kerfoot — at the time, it was Kerfoot and Kapanen — and we wanted to give that line a shot. I really think having a line like that — really hard to play against, going to be all over the puck, great defensive details, with the way Kerfoot and Hyman hunt the puck — has great potential. Andreas Johnsson got hurt in the first or second game that we went with that line, and then we had to put Hyman back up in the top six and never really went back to it because Johnsson was hurt and Mikheyev ended up getting injured. We didn’t end up being able to revisit that.
In doing so, Hyman and Mikheyev are not available in the top six. We had to fill those spots. As we went into free agency, we looked at different options. I talked to Joe about this opportunity. This wasn’t a decision made after the fact. This was something I had talked with him about before he had even decided to sign here.
Joe has got an elite brain. He has elite playmaking skills. Those haven’t gone away on him. He is also great at the net front and great below the goal line down low in the offensive zone. We know Matthews and Marner and their abilities. We thought they could pair very well. With the fact that those are two of our best skaters with the way they track and come back defensively, we thought we would use Joe’s best attributes and also compliment him with players that can help in other areas. We thought it could work really well.
The main thing that we did speak about, of course, is that those guys (Marner and Matthews) play a lot. Joe is not going to play nearly as much as them. He was all for that. He knows where he is at and that I plan on moving things around and compensating a little bit and managing his minutes appropriately. But I want to put him in a position to succeed. I want him to be important on our team so he can help us in a lot of the other areas where we want to grow off the ice. We’re going to give it a shot.
Is it more of a scenario where, on nights where you have to taper Thornton’s minutes back, Hyman goes up or someone else gets an opportunity to jump in with Matthews and Marner?
Keefe: Yeah, I think Hyman would be the guy there, whether it is offensive starts or defensive starts. We can mix it up a little that way. Obviously, Simmonds as well has great potential, whether it is filling Hyman’s spot when Hyman moves up, or whatever the situation might be. We have lots of flexibility.
Nylander can play both wings. John Tavares has played center and wing. Kerfoot can do the same. Mikheyev can play anywhere. We think we have great flexibility there, and we are fully aware that we are going to have to watch Joe and manage his minutes and talk to him a lot to see how it is going. We’ve got to be smart about it.
In bringing him here, we wanted him to be important. We want him to feel good about the role that he has. To do that, you have to give him a great opportunity. We will watch how it goes. We expect things to change between now and the start of the season. We will monitor it — as we will the other lines — and make adjustments as we need to.
Joe Thornton mentioned today that he has “no stress.” Not everyone can have the mindset of Joe, but how contagious do you think he can be with that kind of relaxed mindset in the room?
Keefe: I think it is incredibly contagious. We are already seeing that through his short time here. It is not just Joe; all of the incoming players bring a lot of positivity and energy and experience and confidence to our team. But with Joe, it is a shame everyone can’t be around to see how tangible it is when he is here.
It was a very difficult day for our guys to start training camp — we really demanded a lot of our group. Joe worked extremely hard and pushed himself extremely hard on the ice. On the ice, he still maintained his smile. Off the ice, he’s smiling and he’s happy and he’s excited for the next day. We think that really brings a lot of value to our team. We saw a lot of those benefits out there today.
You mentioned ramping up the team’s competitiveness and physicality yesterday. How much of that is on the shoulders of the new guys coming in to change the look and dynamic of the group, and how much is it asked of the core group that has been here to change their approach?
Keefe: I think we need everybody. I don’t think it is just on the players that have come in here. Where those guys are going to help is that they are going to bring that, and that is just going to help bring up the standard of everything that we are doing.
We are going to push the players and we are going to call out all the behaviours we don’t like and celebrate the ones that we do like. But we all know that when a team is really rolling, it comes from player to player. We have got to set the guidelines and parameters for success for our team, but our players have really got to push each other and really manage how we are playing, and the habits and standards that are acceptable.
Going from one of the younger teams to one of the older teams, that experience is certainly there. It was a very uncomfortable day for our players, starting the training camp off with a 20-minute skate with no pucks and then having to regroup and go through a 75-minute practice after that. That was really hard and competitive, and the energy was really high today. I know guys didn’t enjoy doing what they were doing today, but they still found a way to be positive about it and push through it. I really attribute that to just the energy we have around the team right now.
How does that day-one approach jive with what you first did when you got here last year with the split groups, music going, and the different vibe at practice? Today, a 20-minute bag skate is old school. Are you planning on keeping some of the game plan in terms of practice performances and routines from a year ago, and kind of mixing and matching it with what you did today? Is it a completely different approach?
Keefe: It is a different approach, but it is a whole different animal, right? I am not coming in mid-season to a team that has low energy and is struggling to find a way to win a game. You’ve got to look to build positivity.
Now, I am coming into a team that is coming off a playoff disappointment and doesn’t want to be disappointed again. It is a fresh start to really set the standard of what is acceptable here. That is really difficult to do when you come in mid-season and the team is trying to fight just to get by every day and try to make the playoffs. I look at this as a fresh start for me to really do the things I want to do — things that set the foundation from day one, even through the offseason. I had direct and difficult conversations with our players to set this up.
The additions we made, obviously, speak for themselves. This is what I had in mind all along. We are still looking to have fun. This was a really difficult day, but we still had tunes flying and we made it fun. Jumbo was all excited coming through. He had never experienced anything like that. He liked it and thought it brought a lot to what we were doing. We still want it to be fun as we are going through it. It has to be; if it is not fun, it is not worth doing.
This is a hard league to win in. We know that probably better than anybody with what we have been through. We are going to keep working.
In net, how do you see Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell working out their rhythm and cadence and comfort in their net without any exhibition games?
Keefe: It remains to be seen what the effect of no preseason will be on them. What I can say is that Fred and Jack have been here for a couple of months already skating every day and working with the goalie coaches. Our team has been scrimmaging for the better part of a month already — periodically, not every day. It’s obviously not quite the same as an exhibition game where you are competing against another opponent.
We will see how it goes. Fred has put in a lot of work. This is the longest period of time in an offseason that he has spent in Toronto with our staff. He looks excellent. I didn’t watch very much prior to the camp, but from what I did see and the feedback I am getting from our staff, he has been excellent. He looks very motivated and prepared to go.
We are confident we are going to do a better job in front of our goalies this year and it is going to help their cause. But they have a great role to play. Whatever the situation is at camp, they are going to have to sort their way through it and be ready.
It looks like we are going to see three new bodies in the top six on defense in TJ Brodie, Mikko Lehtonen, and Zach Bogosian — 50% turnover. What are you hoping that will bring to your defense core? How do you see the top six rolling out to start the season?
Keefe: Obviously, the way we started today is a good indication of how we see things right now, but of course, nothing is finalized here yet. Players like Sandin and Dermott that were the 7th or 8th defensemen in our Group 1 today, or in Group 2, even the forwards that are there in Engvall and Robertson and Joey Anderson and Travis Boyd and Nic Petan and Scott Sabourin — who played in the NHL last year in Ottawa — we have a lot of people pushing for those jobs. We like that.
We did bring in new bodies on defense. We like them. We are excited about them. As I told our depth players that were with us last season, we feel our depth is better than it was a year ago. If you were a depth player a year ago on a team that underachieved, you should expect nothing other than the fact that you’ve got to earn your job.
I like our additions, and I like the players that are back with us. I am excited to see how they handle this and how they push through. We know we are going to need our depth — more than just 12 and 6. We are going to need the depth throughout the season. I like the internal competition. All of those kinds of things lend themselves to our team having greater accountability and greater preparation to compete and be consistent.
What potential do you see in a pairing with Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie? How do you like your depth on defense?
Keefe: In Morgan’s case, he is very committed to finding a great partnership with TJ but at the same time, he knows he wants to get better himself. He doesn’t want to use the crutch of having a great partner, which we think is really going to better him and the team. He himself is motivated to be great this season. We are excited about that, and what TJ can do to support it.
I think the defense is really deep. I think it goes beyond the eight skaters we had with our first group today and well into the second group with guys who have played in the NHL and played games for us even last season. We get 10-12 deep without being concerned in that sense. It gives great confidence you can deal with whatever might come our way. We hope that everyone stays healthy and we can manage the schedule and we don’t have to go that far into our depth, but it gives us great confidence and internal competition.
How did you decide on having Lehtonen with Bogosian on the third pairing and then Sandin with Dermott as the fourth pairing for you?
Keefe: The biggest part of it is that we have two guys, in Lehtonen and Bogosian, coming in here that we really like. We want and expect our defense to be better. We give them that opportunity to pair together. At the same time, we have Dermott and Sandin — two guys who have been here and know what our expectations are — and we expect those guys to push and not go quietly in terms of accepting those guys might be ahead of them here right now.
What are the chances you roll with a 7D lineup at times this season?
Keefe: I wouldn’t rule it out. We used it last season as well at different times when we thought it made sense. We will look at everything with that as the season moves along, but right now, as we are getting ready for camp here and the start of the season, that is not my focus. We are looking to go with 12 and 6, but I wouldn’t rule it out as the season moves along.
What is your message to Pierre Engvall, Nick Robertson, and the others in the second group to try to push for time with the NHL team?
Keefe: I met with all of these guys individually and have been very up front with them about their situations. Each of them is a little bit different and unique from the next.
Really, the first message is that we are going to need more than just 12 forwards. That goes without saying. Despite what group you are in, you are going to be called on. At the same time, the decisions are not final. We could change our mind and move things around here at any time, even throughout the camp. It is challenging, with the way the camp is set up, to move things around too much. We had to make some decisions.
Each player is an individual in terms of the messaging. In Nick’s case, it is really pushing and proving that he is ready to play full time in the NHL. In Pierre’s case, he has played very well for us at times. I still think he has a whole other level to get to in terms of the way that he engages physically and the way he uses his size and strength in all areas of the ice.
We are still getting to know Joey Anderson, and it even goes beyond that — Travis Boyd, Scott Sabourin. We have great depth there at forward as well. I am excited to see how it plays out.
Team USA has a chance to win a medal this week at the World Juniors. Can you give us a little bit of insight into the conversations around the decision for Nick Robertson not to go?
Keefe: I think Kyle can probably answer it a little bit better than myself. He was involved with Nick and his agent and Team USA.
My own perspective from my meetings and discussions from Nick: He has been here right from when things finished in the bubble. This guy has been absolutely all in and committed to making himself a better player. His experience of playing in the NHL bubble has him really focused and primed for his camp. He knows he is in a fight to make this team. With how much he has put into it, I am not sure he would’ve forgiven us if we put him in a situation where he had to miss an opportunity to compete in camp.
I know he is a proud American and loved his experience at the World Juniors, but I know he is really focused — as focused of an individual as I have seen coming out of junior hockey. I know he really wants to be a part of this camp.