After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the team’s penalty trouble in recent games, Morgan Rielly’s play defensively, and the value of the net-front presence the team has established on the man advantage.
Practice Lines – January 29
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You and a lot of the players have commented on cutting down on penalties. How do you work on that kind of thing when sometimes it comes down to arbitrary decisions by the referees?
Keefe: Yeah, it is tough, right? Some of them, of course, are calls that could go either way or maybe the ref would want to have back. Over the course of the season, we have had a couple of calls where the ref has commented to me that he made a mistake on that one and would like to have it back. Those kinds of things happen.
Those types of situations are usually a symptom of other things. Last night, a couple of the slashing penalties maybe shouldn’t have been called, and yet the door is open because they’re looking for slashes on the hands, and when you are slashing the stick, it can be misinterpreted as on the hands. Don’t do it. That’s part it.
We have taken a lot of tripping penalties this season. I really have to look at those a little closer. That will be part of what we do during the break that is coming: seeing if there is something we can do on that. If you look at it, the players are doing what you’re asking them to do: the stick is down on the ice, looking to win pucks. We have taken a lot of penalties this season where we have won the puck, and yet in the follow through of winning the puck, it gets in the skates and trips people up. I don’t know if that is just happenstance or something we can bring to the players’ attention.
Definitely, what we know is that we have taken too many and that has allowed teams to get back into games.
Did you feel you were tempting fate last game? What it is about the Oiler power play that makes it so dangerous? You guys did get that big kill at the end when they were looking to tie it.
Keefe: We were tempting fate and making it harder on ourselves than we needed it to be, and that has been a bit of a trend for us with these tight games and having these leads — not just last night, but other games, be it Calgary or Edmonton before that. We take penalties and give really good, dangerous power plays opportunities.
Our penalty kill — I’ve liked a lot about it. I’ve really liked our process we have had in our last five or six games. It has been quite good for us. Even on a night like last night, we give up a 5-on-3 goal and they get another power-play goal on the second one, but we had a huge kill at the end. Our penalty kill — and our goaltending is a big part of that — has stepped up when it has really needed to. Without question, we have got to stay out of the penalty box.
In terms of what makes them dangerous, I think it is pretty obvious with the calibre of players that they have and the threat on both sides of the ice. They are dynamic on both sides of the ice and can change positions. There is a lot to worry about there.
If you take a player off the ice, it makes life a lot easier for them.
Given the nature of the season, is watching the standings something you want to do, if you could control it?
Keefe: I think it is human nature that you are going to look at it, especially with the schedule being what it is. But it is not something we would ever talk about as a team or that I would ever talk about with the players.
Given it is so in the early going here, the thing we do know about it is that it can turn very quickly with the games coming as quickly as they do. If you sleep just a little bit, before you know it, you are back closer to the pack, or people have passed you. We just focus on every day and focus on winning every night.
You have mentioned that Morgan Rielly is keeping a tighter gap. How have you seen that part of his game evolve, and how has it changed the dynamic for him this year?
Keefe: He certainly has [evolved]. In terms of changing the dynamic, it is less time in our end and less space for people to operate on the rush. I think he has been more physical in the defensive zone as well. In these three Edmonton games we have played here, he has played a lot against McDavid and he has done a really good job. Obviously, Brodie is playing a role in that as well. When I just zero in on Morgan’s game, there are a lot of things to like there on both sides of the puck.
You talked earlier in the camp about focusing on net-front presence, and it seems to be paying off, especially on the power play. How much do you think it has changed the dynamic of the power play, not only just from Xs and Os but guys feeding off of it when they see the greasy goals going in?
Keefe: We wanted to score more of those types of goals. When you have a presence like that in front of the net, whether it is Simmonds or Hyman, it encourages players to shoot the puck because they feel it has a chance to go in because of the traffic. If you don’t have traffic save for one or two of our guys, you are not scoring without traffic. If you have that traffic, it encourages more shots. With shots come rebound opportunities, or you get the other team scrambling a little bit and it gets you better opportunities on the second look.
We wanted to have that dynamic a little bit and give that a shot. We changed it up last season, obviously, with Nylander playing down low at the goal line. He was more of a scoring threat himself from the goal line and attacking the net — not so much a traffic presence. It is a different dynamic, and we have found success with it. We’ll stick with it here.
As we’ve seen at times, we think, at times, the other team is in lanes and it is harder to get pucks to the net, so you need a different look. We think having the flexibility of merging Auston and Mitch with John and Will gives a different look at the same time. We are finding that balance as we go.