After practice on Tuesday, Sheldon Keefe discussed Mac Hollowell and Kristian Rubins joining the taxi squad, Wayne Simmonds’ fit on the top line next to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, Alex Galchenyuk’s willingness to buy into the program so far, and the challenge against the Senators on Thursday.
Practice Lines – March 23
#Leafs lines at practice:
SRS: Rubins, Hollowell, Sabourin, Barabanov
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) March 23, 2021
Having gone a few games without a goal now, how much do you think these couple of days off are going to help Auston Matthews and how he is going to come out in the Ottawa game?
Keefe: There is a lot of focus, when we have a guy like Auston who has shown he can score as frequently as he can, on whether it goes in the net. I generally focus more on how he is playing throughout the game — shift to shift and play to play. He has had a number of scoring chances that just haven’t gone in for him. He has hit a lot of posts and missed great opportunities. Over time, things like that are going to go in for a guy like him.
I am not too focused on it. Whether we had a break here or not, we just get back to playing. The better that he feels in terms of his health and energy levels only increases the opportunities for him to get more of those chances to go in.
Today’s personnel moves — are those more to do with the salary cap, or setting things up for the Marlies?
Keefe: Really nothing more to it than just getting those guys that haven’t played as much here of late into a game tomorrow with the Marlies.
With Kristians Rubins and Mac Hollowell coming up to the taxi squad, even if it isn’t for very long, is there anything specific that you want to see from them or that can benefit them from being in the taxi squad?
Keefe: I think that is one of the major benefits of having a taxi squad like we do here this season. In particular for us, with our American league team in the same city, it gives you an opportunity to do things like this. You can expose more players to a chance to come in and practice with the team and be a part of the NHL practice sessions, which can really help develop players such as Mac and Ruby. I think that is really healthy.
They are two guys that work really hard. They are off to good starts and are playing lots with the Marlies. We don’t feel missing a game for them tomorrow is a big deal. In talking to them today, I know they are both excited to be here. It is a good chance for them — right in the middle of a busy season — to get reps against NHL players and test themselves against that. They will use this experience and take it back to the Marlies.
It is just one more experience that they can benefit from in their long-term benefit.
How would you assess Wayne Simmonds’ performance on that top line on Saturday, and what made you want to stick with it moving forward?
Keefe: I thought he did well. I thought they had good energy. Obviously, it is going to take a little bit just to develop the reads and chemistry that you need to have with the line. That is why I wanted to stay with it and give it more opportunities.
Really, I think I just liked everything else that happened underneath that with the lines. Of course, every time you move one player, it has a trickle effect. I think I liked how the other three lines looked and worked. I wanted to give that more of an opportunity.
There have been a lot of chances on the power play. Are you happy with the process there? What are you seeing on the man advantage of late?
Keefe: I think we have had enough chances. We just referenced some of the opportunities Auston has had. Normally, those would go in for him. You’d feel a little bit better about the results for sure. But I think our process can certainly be better.
There are really four main elements to a power play: your faceoffs, your breakout structure, your entry and ability to get set up, and then how you play in the zone. I don’t think we have had any game where all four have really been going here of late.
It has been one night where we are really strong on the faceoffs and have more time in the zone, but then we are not in sync in terms of attacking the net. In other games, we might have that going, but our breakout is an issue and we are not getting in. We just haven’t been in sync in those four areas that really help a power play have a good process.
We are hoping that some time off and some time to get some practice will help. Frankly, playing against a team like Calgary wasn’t a great thing for us. That is a really strong penalty kill and one that has had a lot of success against us. That didn’t help us get into sync, but certainly, we have to do better in that area.
With Alex Galchenyuk, is there anything that has stood out and impressed you about his attitude off the ice and what he brings there?
Keefe: His attitude and his energy have been probably the most impressive things. He has lots of life. He loves being on the ice and being around the guys. He loves competing. Those are all things that I don’t want to say I was surprised by necessarily — the more I sat down and really looked at his game, I started to pick up on those things — but being around him and getting reports from the Marlies on how he conducted himself there…
When you look at a player with a high degree of skill who has had success in the league and you think about what they are going to need to climb their way back and to restart their career if you will, energy and passion and competitiveness are the things that come to mind. If you don’t have those things, and you are just going to rely upon your skill, it is going to be a tough road back.
When you see a guy that was, A) willing to go down to the American league; B) goes down there and competes, plays his ass off, is a good teammate to the young guys, and works at his game, those things are impressive. In the early going here, there have been a lot of things on the energy side of it and the passion that he has shown, how hard he is willing to work in practice reps and in games… He has been probably as good of a forechecker as we’ve had in these two games he’s played.
I don’t think any of those things I talked about are things that first come to mind when you talk about Alex and what he has been through in his career, but he is delivering on that front here now. He just has to make sure he stays with that.
Travis Dermott was talked about how Ottawa has played you tough, and he was saying it is good for a team to play other teams that put them out of your comfort zone. It is the only way you get better. Do you see it that way?
Keefe: Sure, yeah. That is what we have come to expect from the division: Every game is going to be difficult.
First of all, when you look at Ottawa and you look at the standings and where they are at in their development as a young team, it can be easy to overlook them. Especially if you take out the first part of the season when things were really tough for them, they have been as good as most teams in the division. In particular, when they get saves, have confidence in goal, and are keeping their goals against down, they are as hard to beat as anyone in the league. We have certainly found that.
It is not just us. They work extremely hard. They are very competitive. The young players that they have are extremely talented. You make mistakes, and they make you pay for it. They are no easy out. We just saw that again last night with Calgary in that game. There has been a number of others, and not just against us. We have to make sure we are prepared for that for sure.