After practice on Thursday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the nearing return of Wayne Simmonds, the benefits of a rest-and-practice week for Auston Matthews and the team, how much weight he puts into plus/minus as a stat, and the challenge coming up against the Calgary Flames this weekend.
Practice Lines – March 18
#Leafs lines at practice:
SRS: Petan, Barabanov, Boyd, Liljegren, Hutchinson
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) March 18, 2021
Leafs PP units at practice
Matthews – Thornton – Marner
Nylander – Tavares – Spezza
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) March 18, 2021
Given Wayne Simmonds’ injury, is he able to reprise all of the facets of his role right away, or is there an element of caution there?
Keefe: To expect a player who hasn’t played in a long time to just step right in and hit the ground running is asking a lot. There is an expectation that any player, regardless of position or style of play, will take some time to get back into game mode. The games have been coming fast and furious here, and all players across the league are playing at a high level and really have been rolling in a playoff-type of schedule, playing every other day for the most part.
When you are a guy who hasn’t played, it is going to take you some time. That is the expectation. But Simmer, with the guy that he is and the energy that he brings, you would expect that is going to be in place and he is going to be excited to play. The execution, getting back to playing with structure — all of those areas of the game — will take some time.
This week was important for him to get some practice reps in for us. We don’t have the answer as to whether he is going to play tomorrow quite yet. We are still waiting for that. We will see how he is tomorrow now that he has gotten through two practice days, his first two practice days with us. We’ll see how he is responding and make a determination from there.
Certainly, his return is imminent and he is moving into the day-to-day territory. We will make the call from here.
Frederik Andersen has implied that he is playing through some things. Do you think that could be affecting him — some of the physical stuff he has been dealing with?
Keefe: As the season wears on, it takes its toll on you — practices, and games more than anything this season with the way the schedule has been. Of course, it is going to have an impact. Everybody in their own way is dealing with something.
I think Fred has missed time and we were patient, waited, and gave him opportunities to get to the point where he felt confident going in the net. And he has. If anything, in the game the other night in Ottawa, it was a game he was supposed to have off. He had no expectations of playing. All of a sudden, in a hurry, you are in the net.
I thought he battled hard, especially in the first period, and kept it at two. He came in and handled that game very well for us and gave us a chance to find our legs. That was an encouraging sign.
To answer your question, I think everybody is going through something. Of course, it is going to have an effect. This season is unforgiving in that way because the games don’t really settle down. Fortunately, this week has allowed us that opportunity.
What effect does the time off have on the coaching staff to maybe reset mentally?
Keefe: We think it is a positive one. Both this week and next, when we saw the season schedule, we looked at it as a really good opportunity to check some boxes here — get the guys some rest, and get some practice opportunity. We have had practices along the way throughout the season, but when you are practicing when it is a practice day sandwiched between two game days, you are not really getting a lot done. It is really just about trying to keep the guys sharp and letting them touch the puck, feel good, and keep their timing sharp.
It is really hard to get a whole lot done in terms of structure, competitiveness, and physicality because you are so concerned about rest, recovery, and being able to play again the next day. When you have a break like this, you are able to get rest and today was probably the longest practice we had all season. You can get more time on the ice and you’re able to be more competitive. You feel that much better about your game.
We really like having these breaks. We feel like they fell at a good time in the year. In a normal season, around the 30-40 game mark is when you would be having the Christmas break and players would be getting away entirely for three days. We were able to give our guys two days here. We’ve had an opportunity to have these practice days, we play two games, and then we have another break.
We have a plan for next week. We will see how this weekend goes and perhaps adjust it, but we like what we have been able to get done here. Now it is just a matter of bringing it to the ice for the game.
How important is it for players to touch the puck? Do you track how much players touch the puck? How important is just getting a feel for the puck?
Keefe: I think it is really important, but it depends on who you are as a player. Some players do better when they touch it less. I think it is obvious which ones require the puck to get their confidence and get engaged in the game. It is player to player.
Some players, when they touch it, it is very brief. That is the strength of their game: they get it, they move it, and they move to a different space to get it back or to open up space for others. Some guys seem to have it, need to hold onto it, and patiently or methodically look to break things down. That gets them going.
Also, you are looking for players that are able to touch the puck more than once in a particular sequence. Within a shift or within a time in the offensive zone, it is usually the second time you touch the puck that you are more likely for something to happen offensively. The first touch is usually about finding a way to try to break down the defense. If you are able to get it back a second time, things start to really happen.
That is something you look at: Are our offensive people getting the puck back more than once? Are they getting it back a second time and touching it more than once in a sequence? That is something you look at.
Certainly, for offensive people, the more they touch the puck, they feel a lot more confident and engaged in the game.
How much do you think this break is benefiting Auston in terms of getting his shot back up to speed?
Keefe: If today is any indication, it has benefited him greatly. He scored a lot of goals today in practice. He was filling the net. I think that is a very healthy sign for him and us.
What is the focus right now in terms of the penalty kill?
Keefe: A couple of things. First of all, getting back on track with our process and recognizing the importance of just the little details in a klll — getting a clear, getting the puck all the way down the ice when that opportunity is available, finishing right through to the very end. We have had a number of pucks that have gone in on us in the final 30 seconds — or even later than that — on some kills where we have actually done a really good job and then just didn’t finish it.
We’re working on some of those details here today both on and off the ice. Dave Hakstol has done a really good job of staying on top of it. At the same time, we’re recognizing that we have done a lot of really good things on the penalty kill.
We are right near the top in terms of the least amount of time spent in our own end while being shorthanded. We do a really good job of keeping the puck away from our end and our net. It is when it is time to defend, some of our details we have to clean up.
There are a lot of positive things there, too. It is crazy. We have been talking about it all season how quickly things can change, not only in the standings but with something like the penalty kill. When we left Edmonton after that three-game stretch and went into Vancouver, we had the number-one penalty kill in the division up over 80%. All of a sudden, you have a bad stretch of games, and it changes dramatically.
We definitely have to get that back on track and continue to improve in that area. Especially as I looked at games, in about 15 of 25 in that stretch, our penalty kill was outstanding. There are things we can build on and some things we have lost our way with. We have to get going again.
How relevant is plus/minus to you? For example, Mitch Marner is +15. Alex Kerfoot is +6. Does it affect the evaluation of a player, or is it an old way to evaluate the defensive play of a player?
Keefe: It is like a lot of stats that are out there. It is certainly not everything, but it is not nothing, either. You’ve got to look at the context of each stat to figure out how applicable it is to that player in that situation. Plus/minus is one for me where, first of all, you have to take out all of the garbage that is in there. Sometimes there is 6-on-5 stuff that is in there. If you score a goal 6-on-5, you get a plus, or you get a minus if you get scored on 5-on-6. That makes zero sense to me. You don’t get the same plus when you score in a power-play situation.
You have to throw all of that kind of stuff out so you are just looking at 5-on-5. It can tell you a story: This guy is on the ice for more goals for than he is against. Obviously, that is a very positive thing. If it comes up the other way and he is on for more against than he is for, to me, all it does is just give me something to look into — look into those goals, and see what kind of role the player maybe played in that situation that may have led to those stats rather than the stats telling me a story that this player is or isn’t a good defensive player.
Like everything, you have to look beneath it.
What do you know about Darryl Sutter? How do you feel about matching wits with him this weekend?
Keefe: First of all, we are excited to play against Calgary and their team. The coaching change and Darryl coming in has changed their attitude and given them a reset and a refreshed mindset coming in. I didn’t watch the game last night, but certainly, before that, they were rolling as a team. That is what we focused our pre-scout on this past week.
In the games played before last night, the way they played and competed in the first three games is a sign of Darryl Sutter-coached teams, how they play, and the mindset that they have and the players seem to be embracing. We know that challenge.
The last time Calgary came into Toronto, they were a lot to handle even before the coaching change. We are definitely ready for a very competitive weekend here.