After practice on Sunday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the plan for TOI distribution for the remainder of the regular season, the chemistry Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have built this season, Paul MacLean’s role on the coaching staff, and John Tavares’ leadership and commitment defensively this season.
Practice Lines – May 2
#Leafs lines at practice:
(Campbell left after about 15 minutes)
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) May 2, 2021
Was Jack Campbell’s departure today maintenance-related, and do you have an update on Justin Holl?
Keefe: Yeah, for Campbell, that was just part of the plan today for his day. We didn’t need to overwork him today. He will play again tomorrow. We just wanted to get a little bit of work in. We have set it up so that Fred would get an increased number of shots today and Rittich would relieve Campbell when he was done.
In terms of Holl, he is doing well. He is uncomfortable today, understandably. He is not going to travel with us. He won’t play tomorrow. But we are not expecting him to miss any length of time beyond that.
With Frederik Andersen getting another practice under his belt, is there any more clarity on what is in store next for him here as he works his way back?
Keefe: No real clarity on it. Today is a good step for him just in terms of increasing his workload. The plan at this point is that he is not going to travel with us but we will have another team practice on Wednesday. As they are building up his workload, they are going to try to set up a plan from there.
John Tavares was talking about conversations you’ve had about him playing a bigger role for the team defensively this season, and how his role might change with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner playing the way that they are together. How have those conversations gone from your perspective?
Keefe: I think a lot of those conversations happened in the offseason mainly — just reflecting on the previous season and our series against Columbus — and just talking about where our team needed to grow and where our individual players needed to grow.
Really, it hasn’t been so much conversations since that time. It has been more team conversations about what we are about. A part of what we had talked about in the offseason with John as our captain is for him to lead the way in a lot of these areas that our team needs to grow in. The fact is that we can’t grow in those areas unless our leaders lead the way.
That has really been it. John has delivered and has taken it upon himself to do that. The growth of our team, both with and without the puck, in terms of responsibility and consistency, I think John really embodies that. I know he went through a stretch of time where there was a lot of talk about his production and things like that, but what has remained consistent for me is the fact that the puck rarely goes in our net when he is out there.
He is doing a really good job of not giving up chances against and managing the game really well. He has played with lots of different wingers and moved around at different times. We have moved things around around him, but he has been really solid all season long.
Now that he is starting to produce and the luck has started to go his way, it’s good to see, but the foundation defensively has been there right from day one. That is what we needed as a team.
With the leadership group on the team now, especially after adding Nick Foligno, how much have you needed to remind the team to dial in for the last stretch? Is that something you need to consciously do, or is the group taking care of it themselves?
Keefe: A little bit of both. As a coach, it is your job to set the tone and create the environment every day. I have always believed teams that are successful are ones where the players take ownership. In a lot of ways, the team starts to run itself. At this time of year, that is really important.
A coach only has so many bullets or messages that he can deliver before players, if they don’t want to hear that message, are just going to tune it out and move along. Our team is very focused. The leadership sets the tone every day. They reinforce the message that the coaches are delivering.
As the season has worn along, at times, I and other members of our coaching staff need to step up and give a message in various ways. But the players themselves have led the way in terms of taking the message right from training camp and in the offseason and building something that is sustainable throughout the season.
When we have hit a slide, the coaches need to step up and get things back on track. Ultimately, the players have shown a great level of focus this season.
Paul MacLean joined the coaching staff this year. How have you used him as a sounding board? How has he fit in? What have you appreciated about working with him?
Keefe: He has fit in very well. We have used him how we planned to from the outset: He has really been assisting all facets of the organization, or at least the coaching staff, from myself, Dave Hakstol, Manny Malhotra, on the power play and penalty kill.
He hasn’t traveled with our team, although he will. He is coming with us on this trip to Montreal and he will come with us on the final trip to Ottawa and Winnipeg. He will be with us on the road through the playoffs.
With the way we set it up, I have actually valued his time away from us when we go on the road just to watch the game from a distance, provide his insights from a distance, review the game separate from the coaching staff, and be able to provide his insights.
At home, he is with us every day. He has been great for the coaching staff. He has been great having conversations with players. For myself, getting experience in the league and dealing with different situations — be it with our own players, our own team, or opposition — he has just been providing great perspectives for us. He has been a real nice addition to our staff to round out our group.
We know you have experimented on the wings in the top six this season, but you have kept Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner together for pretty much the whole year. How much do you think that has helped in terms of the chemistry they have been able to develop?
Keefe: I can’t help but think it has been a positive thing for them just to have that continuity all of the time. They, like John and Will, have had things move around on the left side, but those guys having that continuity is a positive thing.
Auston has missed time, so John and Mitch have played at times together. Throughout each game, I still get some shifts with Auston, John, and Will after penalty kills and things like that. There have been some times where things have moved, but generally speaking, game-to-game, they are together.
Over time, I think that pays off and we are seeing that in terms of their ability to find each other and use each other’s strengths very well to create a nice combination for us.
You have leaned heavily on those top guys in terms of minutes played. Are you going to be looking to spread things out in terms of minutes down the stretch if you can?
Keefe: If I can, yeah. Last night, that was something I was trying to be conscious of –trying to build up the confidence of our third and fourth lines and putting them in different situations we might need them in. The pace and physicality of the playoffs are going to require those guys to play a little more and certainly play against better players at different times.
We are trying to be mindful of that. At the same time, we are able to reduce the workload of some of the top guys, but we are also trying to be competitive, win the games, and keep the top guys in their rhythm. We don’t want to pull back too much and then you have too far to go to ramp them up when the playoffs begin. We have to manage all of those things, but of course, we are trying to maximize how much we can use our depth here.