Sheldon Keefe addressed the media one day away from the kick off of the 2021 regular season, discussing the challenge against Montreal tomorrow night, the role of special teams early in the year, and the importance of coaching adjustments with the unique schedule.
With only the Blue and White game under your belt, how important is it that the special teams come through for your tomorrow night?
Keefe: For sure. Special teams, as we know, are difference makers in all circumstances and all games. You also want to get your confidence in those areas. It is an important thing for sure. We didn’t get going on our special teams until the back half of last week. We did that because we felt we needed to prioritize the standards and the work ethic and the demands of practice — the tempo and pace.
Special teams, because you are not using as many players, generally slow down your practices. We can’t really accomplish the pace and tempo that we were looking for. We did that in the latter half, but we have had meetings every day since that time. We’ve got some different looks on both the power play and the penalty kill.
It is going to take a little bit of time, for sure, but as long as the structure can fall into place and the competitive pieces are there, it is going to put our best players in position to be difference makers there.
In the division, among your coaching foes, there is a lot of experience outside of DJ Smith and yourself. How do you view that going in against some of these guys?
Keefe: It is not something I have given a great deal of thought to, to be honest. In terms of the coaches themselves, we have spent a great deal of time on their teams and players. Obviously, that is a big priority for us in getting to know these six opponents as well as we can. It has been somewhat challenging, I would say, because all of the teams have made changes — some with very significant changes. Montreal and Ottawa, who we are playing this week, are two teams that have developed and changed a lot.
You can only prepare so much. In terms of the coaches themselves, I don’t put a whole lot of thought into that other than knowing there are really good coaches and lots of well-prepared teams we are going up against.
How crucial are in-game adjustments given so many of the games are played in mini-series two or three games in length?
Keefe: I think you are going to see that for sure, not unlike a playoff setting. In-game is definitely part of it, but just the nature of hockey being what it is, it tends to be game-to-game. When you have more time to really process the game and watch it on video and those kinds of things, it is a little easier that way to see and make adjustments.
As you get to know your opponent that much better and you play them head to head and get to know their tendencies and such, you can make the adjustments in-game because you kind of know what is coming, and there are certain triggers that are coming that make you want to adjust.
Those become factors. Those are very, very unique pieces in this season that you don’t get in a regular season. It is not unlike what I felt like in the American league playing teams several times in a row and 10-12 times in a season.
Do you have a plan for how you are going to balance practice with morning skates?
Keefe: We do have a plan going in. We have mapped out and scheduled the entire season for how we think it will go, but you always have to adjust. You have to adjust to how your team is performing. You have to adjust to energy levels of your players and the demands of the schedule, travel, and the effects those have. You have to adjust along the way.
The general pattern you will see from us: If we have practiced the day before the game, we will likely not have a full team morning skate the next day. We will have an optional. In that sense, the players that like to get out there and get their touches will get out there. Those who like to stay off and have some meetings or stretch or something — or get treatment — will have that.
It is more about putting it in the hands of the players to prepare themselves. How our team is responding to those scenarios will determine if we have to make adjustments along the way. I think that is what it is about. We have a plan going in here and we will stay with that to begin, and adjust accordingly.
What does the Montreal-Toronto rivalry mean to you in the historic sense? Secondly, knowing Montreal has beefed up a little bit in terms of play in front of the net and defending their own net. Do you think this is a good litmus test?
Keefe: That is certainly what we are expecting in terms of the opponent. It is a big rivalry. I recognize that. It is a privilege to be a part of it. At the same time, it means a great deal this season with how many times we are going to face them, and the fact that they are a very good team. We are looking at them and the additions that they have made, and it is as difficult of a team as we are going to face here. There are certainly lots of great teams, but these guys are right there in terms of teams that are going to be competitive in the division. We are preparing for that.
Even if I look back at last season’s team without the additions they’ve made, no team won the net-fronts as well as Montreal did in terms of keeping people away from their net and controlling rebound situations and winning rebounds and getting loose pucks at the opposition’s net. That is a big focus going into tomorrow.
We think we have beefed up as well if you look at some of our additions. We are a bigger, stronger team at the same time. I think we are well suited to adapt to however the games are going to go.