After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the team’s progress defensively through 14 games, the plan for managing the taxi squad and the AHL schedule with the Marlies’ season set to start next week, the status of Nick Robertson and Joe Thornton, and Auston Matthews’ commitment to the physical and defensive parts of the game.
One of the priorities in the offseason was for the team to become harder to play against. How have you seen the progress through 14 games?
Keefe: You could take that statement in all sorts of different directions, but I think the biggest area where we have improved in that regard and the area we wanted to make it harder, in particular, was to get to our net with the defensive part of it: Being above the puck and having numerical advantages not just offensively but defensively, and prioritizing our net front.
That, to me, is the greatest area of growth: The commitment to doing it. Even at times when the offense hasn’t been going the way we would like or the way more high-end offensive guys would expect, they haven’t sacrificed that part of it. It hasn’t been perfect, but we have seen a lot of commitment in that area. I think that has been the real foundation to the success we have had to this point.
Keefe: We are having those conversations — Kyle and I — to balance that and make sure the players we might need are available for us. Also, at the same time, we’re recognizing that the development of our players is important with the game action there, especially for those who haven’t had much game action.
Of course, there is the whole thing where, despite the fact that you have a taxi squad and they are benefitting from being around and in the meetings and around the team, they are not as game ready. The ability to play a game is going to benefit us and the players. We have to manage that to make it all work for us to make sure that, in the event that something happens, we have players that are accessible and ready to go.
It is a juggling act, for sure, but we are having the conversations and we are going to sort it out. It looks like they are going to start their season on the road, which doesn’t help us in terms of accessibility. We have to sort through those kinds of things.
Do you have any more clarity on how soon you might see Joe Thornton and Nick Robertson return to the lineup?
Keefe: Today’s practice was an important one for that process. It looks like they got through it well, but I haven’t talked to our trainers or doctors or anything in terms of what the next step is. It certainly looks as though it is on the horizon here.
Numbers wise, it seems like you guys spend as much time in the offensive zone as any team in the league, but the shot counter doesn’t go too high. Is that okay with you? Do you want the guys to be selective?
Keefe: I think there are certain areas we would like to improve to spend even more time in the offensive zone. There have been some games where that hasn’t been a strength of ours. Certainly, we want our players to be intelligent with the puck and make sure they make the right decisions with it.
Sometimes, the right decision is to shoot the puck and crash the net and have people there. Sometimes, it’s not the best decision to shoot from a low-percentage area. We want to try to work for something better. At times, it tends to not result in the type of shot attempts or shot clock increases that you would like to see, but there is a balance there for sure.
I think it is less about the shooting and more about the process for us of coming out of our zone and getting through the neutral zone to spend even more time down there.
It has been a long journey for Justin Holl to get to this point in his career. What stands out to you about the type of guy he is and the character he has shown?
Keefe: We have talked about it a lot before throughout last season. Despite the fact that he has had a very difficult road he has had to exercise great patience along — whether it is the American league or the NHL — he has remained confident in himself. That is the biggest driver, I think. It has allowed him to remain focus and prepared when his opportunity did come.
In terms of his personality, he is very easygoing and very friendly. Guys like being around him. He is good with everybody. He is just himself. No matter the circumstances of what is happening with him or the team or the season, he is himself every day. He brings a lot to the spirit of our team.
Auston Matthews has more hits at this time in the season than he has had at any time previous in his career. Is that an evolution in his game? Is there any reason why he is a little bit more physical in terms of throwing hits?
Keefe: You would have to maybe ask him and his perspective on why that is. My perspective on it: What we had asked our team to do, Auston has taken upon himself and done it. That is how I look at it.
We have asked the team to be better defensively, be above the puck, track, and create turnovers. He leads the team in that area.
We asked the team to be more physical and use their body when the opportunity presents itself because it gives us benefits on both sides of the puck, offensively and defensively. He does that.
That is what I have seen. No matter what we have asked for from our team, Auston has decided he is going to lead the way in that regard. I think it started in the playoff series last year against Columbus. We didn’t get the results that we wanted, but if you go back to that series and focus on him and the details — physically, blocking shots, working to come back to our end — he had all of those elements in his game. He has brought that to an even greater level here this time around.
He has had the goal streak, of course, and it was great. He is making the impact offensively as we expect that he would. But he is very focused on the details and playing a team game.
There is no greater example perhaps than the other night with the goalie out. He has an opportunity to take a shot at the empty net to try to extend his streak perhaps. Instead, he makes an exceptional pass to Zach Hyman to make sure we have the higher percentage shot to ice the game. That is the perfect look into his mindset.
Are you getting a better buy-in from your players and your top guys this year? How would you compare the level of buy-in to what you have seen last year?
Keefe: I think we have had a greater commitment. I don’t know what term you would use with it. I think the guys just understand what it is we need to do to give ourselves a chance at success. Right from the start of camp — and really, from the end of last season and the end of the series versus Columbus — the messaging that we have had, from myself and Kyle to the players and the players amongst themselves, is a renewed focus around what needs to get done. The guys have been really good about staying with it.