Sheldon Keefe met with the media after his team’s practice on Thursday, discussing the new line configurations with Joe Thornton out injured, Justin Holl’s play so far this season, and the team’s progress and areas for improvement through five games.
Maple Leafs Lines – January 21 Practice
#Leafs lines at practice:
SRS: Anderson, Hutchinson
*presumably a placeholder for Matthews
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) January 21, 2021
Do you have an update on Auston Matthews? Are you concerned about his availability for tomorrow?
Keefe: No real update other than he wasn’t feeling great today coming off of the game yesterday. He is just going to take the rest of the day here today and see how he is for tomorrow. We will have an update tomorrow, I suppose.
The guys talked about focusing too much on the stars on the other team and not enough on their own game. Is there a danger when you’re facing stars on the other side of not focusing enough on yourselves?
Keefe: There is always a danger of too much information. That is a real thing. That said, we are early in the season here and playing a team for the first time. You’ve got to provide the information. As the season goes on, the meetings get shorter and shorter and less and less. I think the preparation that we had yesterday was important. I think it paid off on the ice.
The way that we played gave us a chance to win the game. We negated the biggest offensive threats on their team and it gave us a chance to win. Certainly, we have to deliver on the other side of the puck as well. We are trying to get better and more consistent with our defensive play. I think we have done that here now, especially for the last three games, but it does take the other side as well.
We’ve talked about it and there are a lot of opportunities for us to create more offense. A lot of it is just through work. You can’t ignore the fact that Edmonton played an excellent game defensively yesterday. They were very committed. They clearly came in with a plan to help win a game. There were two teams that were trying to respect each other’s strengths and nullify them.
Ultimately, as much as we didn’t like our game, there were a lot of areas where we can get better. Because of how we played, we gave ourselves a chance to win the game. Ultimately, an own goal and a bad bounce, they scored a power-play goal and they didn’t, and that’s the difference in the game.
We missed a wide-open net late in the game there with a chance to tie it. There are a lot of encouraging signs there. We just have to put it all together. We will stay at it.
The numbers suggest you are doing a good job of controlling the puck in the offensive zone, and you are very patient with the puck. Maybe too patient with the puck. What is the rationale between a strategy like that where you continually pass and are continually patient with the puck? You’ve done a good job of controlling the play, generally.
Keefe: We didn’t do a very good job of that yesterday. In fact, I don’t think we had very many good, clean pucks in the offensive zone — maybe one or two. Yesterday, I don’t think that was much of a factor.
We have been talking about it for some time, increasing our pace offensively. In the Ottawa and Winnipeg games, we saw a great increase in that area and we were very good in it. Yesterday, we got up against a team that was really committed — they had five people above the puck all the time. They didn’t give us much space or opportunity to create offense.
We had to really work and grind our way to getting some chances. When I say grind, it is not all about chipping and chasing and all of that. It is about challenging defensemen, moving your feet, competing for space, pushing them back, and creating space for your teammates. It is being connected and supporting the puck — it’s all of those things where we can get better.
It is part of where we are trying to improve, but it wasn’t a factor yesterday. They did such a good job through the neutral zone and coming back to their own end that we didn’t get many of those clean pucks.
Do you have an update on Joe Thornton’s condition?
Keefe: I have no update other than he is not going to be available tomorrow. As I said last night, he is definitely going to miss some time. It is not a day-to-day thing. At this point, we don’t have a final update or diagnosis.
Can you take us through the thought process of how you are going to reconfigure the lines, bumping Jimmy Vesey up with Matthews and Marner, and Hyman with Tavares and Nylander?
Keefe: We will see how it all comes together. There are a lot of things happening. Obviously, the health of our players in our lineup is one thing. How salary cap and all of those things move around affect a lot of different decisions. We will see how it all settles for tomorrow.
In terms of how we practiced today, like we have maintained from the start with Matthews and Marner playing with Joe, the expectation is that those two guys are real drivers of the line and do a lot of the work offensively and defensively. We need a support player to play with them. I like Hyman playing in that spot, and we obviously used that a lot yesterday. We will continue to use it at times.
I like Matthews and Marner together with how they are playing. They are able to drive a line together and make it hard on the other team. It allows us to use our depth throughout the lineup other than just loading up our top line or top six.
We think Hyman can bring an extra boost to JT and Willy. As I said, we will see how it all shakes out tomorrow.
What are some of the improvements you have seen in Justin Holl’s game this season that has allowed him to have success?
Keefe: I think we are maybe forgetting the fact that Justin Holl was a pretty good player for us last season. He took on top matchups. He played very well. I don’t know that a lot has changed. I think he is finding his game. It was a slower start for him, but I think he is getting there again to being that consistent, reliable partner for Muzz.
I don’t know that a lot has changed. I am sure that he has a lot more confidence coming back this season, and that is helpful, but he was a really good player for us last season and we expect him to continue it and even improve. At this stage, I think he is just settling back into where he was. We think he can get better.
You are now 3-2-0 to start the season and have seen four of the six opponents in the North Division. Are you happy with where the team is at so far?
Keefe: We have shown real progress in the areas we want to see progress in. Last night was just a great example of how we were able to not get frustrated and not crack defensively. I thought we stayed with it throughout, and it gave us a chance to win the game even though we’re down 1-0 for the vast majority of the game.
We stayed with it, and that shows the discipline that we have that way. We have seen, each time that we have had a good night and done good things, there are lots of areas for growth that are there for us. We have had those conversations. We have had very honest and direct conversations every day with our players about where we want to get to.
We feel like, as we sit at 3-2, we could be at 5-0 if we were able to be more consistent or play how we’re capable of. We were winning in the Ottawa game and gave that lead up. Last night, the game was right there for us. We didn’t like a lot of things about our game, but if we are all being honest, it is a game that really could’ve gone either way.
From day one of camp, we have liked the energy of our group. Our guys are committed to building something here that is going to be able to sustain itself over the course of a season and set us up for the playoffs. It is a process. Every team in the division is having these same conversations and has optimism around the team. It is going to be hard. The schedule is already starting to heat up. You are feeling it. It is every other day, and that brings its own challenges. We have got to get comfortable with all of that because it is not going to stop until the end of the 56 games.