After practice on Tuesday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the team’s commitment to defense this season, how the team has handled games that have turned rougher, Rich Clune receiving the captaincy with the Marlies, and William Nylander’s play since the controversial Toronto Sun article about him.
March 2nd – Practice Lines
#Leafs lines at practice:
*in grey; Nylander placeholder?
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) March 2, 2021
How is the goaltending situation shaping up with the back-to-back coming up?
Keefe: Frederik Andersen had a positive day today. That is a great thing for us. We will have to see how he is tomorrow and make a determination from there. Jack Campbell skated, but he is not going to be available.
What kept William Nylander out of practice today and what is his status moving forward?
Keefe: We’ll just call it a maintenance day for him. He has something that he has been managing and playing through here. We wanted to give him a day to let that settle down.
Things have gotten feisty at the end of games against the Oilers. What has stood out to you about the way the team has handled it when the temperature has risen on the game this season?
Keefe: I think we have done a good job with it. The group has stayed together. I don’t think there has been a great deal of those types of things, but I think our guys aren’t fazed by it. That is an important thing.
We have added some extra experience to our team. I think that makes a difference. Our guys are comfortable no matter which way the game goes.
The team’s game in its own end has been impressive in these last two games against the Oilers. The commitment to the defensive side of the puck on the part of your offensive guys — how much has that put you in the situation you are in now?
Keefe: Right from the start of training camp, we talked about it being the foundation of our team. Taking care of that and being committed to that is something we needed to be able to do at a very high level. There are a lot of really positive things about our team offensively that we had confidence would be able to continue and we looked to build on that, but we needed to build a foundation defensively that we could rely on at times when the offense dries up or if there are injuries.
You have to have a foundation to rely on to give us a chance to win every night. Our guys have shown a lot of commitment to that.
With the injuries you have faced this season, how encouraging is it to see the buy-in to the next-man-up mentality?
Keefe: It is really great for us to have that mindset and, most importantly, have the players press on and make the adjustments to our team that we need to. We talked about it the other day how playing without Auston Matthews is essentially taking a goal out of your lineup. Thus, you have to make sure you are that much better defensively and you don’t give up anything. That has kind of been our mindset.
It certainly has been next man up. We have a lot of players we have utilized here throughout the season. Even at times when we have been healthy, we have changed the lines up just to get more people involved. All of those kinds of things give you the extra confidence that when someone goes down, you can deal with it.
It goes back to what I was talking about with the foundation of the team. The defensive mindset and the foundation — it is not a one-man thing. That is not just relying on a few players. It is a team mindset. It is playing in groups of five and insulating each other. When one man makes a mistake, you’ve got the numerical advantages and the pressure to be able to make up for — all of those kinds of things.
That is something that we believe is sustainable if we can maintain that and have it just be a part of our identity. We feel like we are getting to that point. The results have been great. We have to stay with it as a team.
Rich Clune was named the captain of the Marlies on Monday. How would you describe him as a leader and as a person that would make him deserving of that distinction?
Keefe: I was thrilled to see him get that honour. He has been the unofficial captain of the Marlies for as long as he has been there. For him to get that distinction here now at this point in his career with all that is happening in the world and in the sport… He does so many things — not just for the Marlies, but things that impact the Maple Leafs. With how he has handled himself, whether it is an offseason workout or a training camp at the Leafs level, the effort that he puts forth makes everybody around him better.
I have seen firsthand the impact he has on the players, setting an environment for players to get better and learn how to be good professionals at the AHL level. That helps them become NHLers. There are a lot of players that are on this team with the Maple Leafs that were impacted positively by Rich’s professionalism, commitment, the love he has for the game and his teammates, and the passion he brings every day.
I was thrilled for him. That is a great moment for him and a great moment for our organization.
A few weeks ago, William Nylander was compared to furniture at IKEA without the manual in a Toronto newspaper. He has now scored a few goals in a few games in a row. How important is he to the team?
Keefe: He is very important. He has the ability to make a difference in the game. On any shift, at any time, he can make a difference offensively. He can do the hardest thing there is to do in our game: produce offense. That makes him extremely valuable to our team.