After an optional practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the play of the team at the halfway point, goals for the second half of the season, the impact of the veterans the team added in the offseason, and the status of Jack Campbell in his injury rehab.
You are at the halfway point sitting first overall in the league with a +27 goal differential. What comes to mind when you consider that, and what do you look forward to in the second half of the season?
Keefe: First of all, I really pay little-to-no attention to what is happening across the league. The division is what is most important for us. That is the focal point given it is really a league within a league. We are focused on that and that only.
I think, despite the fact that we have had a great deal of success and we feel good about the results we have gotten through the first half, it doesn’t take long to look at it and see that there is not much distance there. It is going to be a tight competition all the way through. There are a lot of teams still in the fight and pushing and looking to have good second halves.
The thing with our team is that we just have to continue to get better and take it a day at a time. We’ll try to be at our best as much as we can. We like that we were able to get two points yesterday, but we also gave a point to a team that is right behind us in the standings. Through four games, we haven’t won in regulation.
There are a number of things we have done well, but I am very mindful of the big picture and recognizing there are lots of things we need to do better.
Now at the halfway point, have you figured out a little more how to use Jimmy Vesey? You were talking about still figuring out where his game is at. Do you have more clarity as to where he can excel and contribute?
Keefe: I think I have good clarity on that. Things have fallen into place a little bit here. Some of it is with him. Some of it is with others and how they have taken advantage of opportunities and latched onto roles.
Things are falling into place here for Jimmy. He has been on the fourth line for a fair bit. I think where we are at now is that we would like to see him really grab onto that role. We think there is great ability for him to move up the lineup at different times. He has shown that he can be an opportunistic scorer. When the chances come, he can finish them.
We have been playing him down on the fourth line. We think that is kind of where he is right now. He needs to really latch onto that role and responsibility in order to stay there.
How would you describe the impact experienced players like Brodie, Bogosian, and Simmonds have had on your team at this point in the season?
Keefe: It has been great. The biggest impact, to me, is the general personality of our team. You bring in four people that are experienced, and with experience comes a great deal of confidence.
When I say that, it is confidence in who they are as individuals. They come in every day and they are themselves. It just allows everybody else to feel good about themselves. Things just kind of fall into place that way. They all have great personalities in their own way and bring lots to us off the ice.
On the ice, each has made great contributions to our team as well. It is really just solidifying our team throughout the lineup. Whether it is high in the lineup, low in the lineup — on both forward or defense — or on special teams, each guy is contributing a lot.
To me, we have really missed Wayne Simmonds since he has left the lineup. It has been a different feel around our team just because of the level of personality he brings. He is a guy who talks a lot in the room and talks a lot on the bench, perhaps most importantly. We have had a quiet bench, and over my time here, it has improved greatly. Wayne is someone who really brings a lot to the ice and to the bench. Of course, he is playing very well, too. We really felt it when he left the lineup. We are excited to get him back.
All four guys you mentioned there have all contributed greatly.
Where do you want to see the improvements in the second half? You have become a better defensive team this year — probably more resilient — but is there an area that needs to keep growing for you?
Keefe: I see every area. I don’t think we have reached exactly where we want to be at. I think we have done good things defensively. I think we have played better as a team at different times. But it is about consistency. That is what we are seeking: greater consistency in each area — game to game, even shift to shift, period to period.
We are seeking that level of consistency. I think we really put it all together in Edmonton for that three-game set there. That really showed what we are capable of. That, in a lot of ways, is a good model for us. Also in those games, a lot of things went our way. We led in every game. We never trailed. We had a lot of success on special teams. A lot of things go your way, but that is not the way the game works.
Since those games, we haven’t been winning. We have been trailing. We have been trying to find our way back. It is staying with the structure, trusting the structure, staying committed, finding ways to score when it is more difficult, finding ways to score when you don’t get as many power-play opportunities, the penalty kill coming up big when it needs to…
There are a lot of things here. Every coach in the league, no matter where you sit in the standings — even if you are in first place or if you have won President’s Trophies in the past — you don’t just take days off. They are working. They are trying to get their team to be better knowing that everybody around the league is improving.
We are no different. There are a lot of things where I would like to see us get better. Consistency is the big one. We have shown progress, but it is about staying with it and being able to have the confidence that it is going to be there when it is most difficult.
How concerned are you with Jack Campbell’s recovery right now?
Keefe: Obviously, we would love to have him. It has been a day-to-day thing. You are just kind of waiting on him to feel good enough and for the medical staff to give the OK. The fact that he hasn’t been with us and hasn’t been able to dress is not a good thing for us, of course. We are better when we have him.
In terms of my concern level, I would say it’s low given that it does appear to me that there has been consistent progress. It is just a matter of time here. It is just really a day-to-day thing. It looked to me like another really good day. We will see where that puts him for tomorrow.