After practice on Monday, Sheldon Keefe discussed Hayley Wickenheiser’s promotion to Senior Director of Player Development, the meaning of the Leafs-Habs rivalry, the team’s improvements defensively this season, and the value of the team’s veteran line (Thornton, Spezza, Simmonds).

Practice Lines – May 17

With the promotion of Hayley Wickenheiser to Senior Director of Player Development and the hiring of Danielle Goyette to Director of Player Development, can you talk about what Hayley has meant to the organization and the addition of Danielle as well?

Keefe: It goes without saying that Hayley has made significant contributions to the sport both as a player and now in our role that she has had with our team over the last few years. I worked with her a lot in my time with the Marlies when she was working in player development. She really helped bring a lot to the player development program. I learned a lot from having conversations with her.

She played the game at a high, high level, obviously, and she is an elite talent. She has the unique combination of elite talent, elite intelligence, and elite work ethic. All of those things shine through in her role any time she has been around myself, the coaching staff, and the players.

To have her take a significant step into a leadership position now within the development program is a huge win for our organization. I can’t speak highly enough about Hayley in terms of what she brings on the hockey side of it. Outside of hockey, there are so many things she is involved in with helping people all across the country. Her drive to complete her medical degree here… She is beyond impressive.

It is not just those accomplishments, but meeting her and being around her, I have been nothing but impressed from the very first conversation I had with her. For her to be stepping up into a leadership position in our organization is a big win for us.

I was happy to see Hayley in the building today. I know she has jumped right into getting started.

I don’t know Danielle Goyette other than to say that she is very much like Hayley in terms of her accomplishments on the ice as a player — especially with the national team — and she has been coaching here for the last number of years as well and has had success there. I know she was right at the top of Hayley’s list to bring in. If it is good with Hayley, it is good with me. It is another big win for our organization there.

What does it say about the organization that Kyle Dubas would take it in such a direction giving top posts to a couple of women and leading in that area?

Keefe: I think it goes to show where the sport itself is growing. As I was saying, the first time you meet Hayley Wickenheiser, you know right away that she has a lot to offer. I have said it before to other people — she played the female game, obviously, but she has an elite hockey mind. She sees the game and processes the game at the same level as elite players that play the men’s game. From that perspective, she brings a lot.

Over the number of years I have been in the organization here now, the number of women has grown significantly. No matter what the position, I think they have just brought so much and enhanced the organization in so many ways. For that to continue to grow, it is a very positive thing for us and for the hockey community at large.

As an Ontario kid who spent a lot of time coaching in Pembroke — a town split probably split pretty evenly between Senators, Habs, and Leafs fans — are you able to detach yourself from the games and sense how much this means to people?

Keefe: It is probably difficult because I haven’t seen or spoken to too many people these days. But I think you do recognize it. My father — and really all my family — are from Prince Edward Island, and that is a split province. The Leafs-Habs rivalry–  I grew up with a lot of that, and it has been a really long time since they have been together here in a playoff series. That means a lot to a lot of people — probably a lot of older people — and we hope through this, it revives that rivalry.

If the Habs look to turn this into an ultra-physical series, what is the best way for your group to combat that?

Keefe: Just keep playing and play through it. We have to be physical ourselves. Playoff hockey demands that. Montreal is right up there with the most physical teams in the NHL, even in the regular season, and we played against them 10 times. It is not entirely new for us. We know what to expect.

At the same time, playoffs are going to bring out a higher level of physicality to everybody, including ourselves, and we are more than prepared for that.

With Zach Bogosian wearing a regular jersey, is he getting closer to returning for you guys? What is the status of Ben Hutton, who has been missing for the last couple of days?

Keefe: Bogosian being out of the non-contact jersey today is a positive step. We have a day off tomorrow and then another practice day. It will be part of his progression. He is not quite there yet from what I am told, but obviously, the more reps that he gets, he is going to get even closer. We are certainly expecting him to be available in this series.

In regards to Ben Hutton, he has a non-Covid medical situation that our staff is monitoring. It’s not hockey related. That is all I have for now. He is going to be off the ice for the next little bit here before he goes through more testing.

The team’s goals-against average has dropped significantly compared to last season. What have been the main improvements in your own zone game? 

Keefe: If you look over the course of the season, while we haven’t been perfect in this area — I don’t think any team really is — we have really reduced the number of odd-man rushes and breaks that come our way, be it breakaways, 2-on-1s, or open looks at our net. We have reduced that greatly, whether that is off the rush or in our own zone.

It has been a priority for us, really, going back to my first training camp going into the bubble for the Columbus series. We thought we made good progress through that and then continued to build on it through this training camp for this season. The players have really bought into that. The combination of that and strong goaltending at the right times has really helped us there.

That was a big priority for us. We were right at the bottom of the NHL a season ago in goals against. You can’t compete at a high level when that is the case. Our players have been very committed to it. We have virtually turned that around to be up near the top of the league in 5-on-5 goals against. That is the biggest reason why we have maintained such a strong place in the standings.

Only Joe Thornton was alive among your player group the last time the Leafs played against the Habs in the playoffs. You weren’t even alive the last time they met each other in the playoffs. How would you describe the symbolic meaning of a playoff series between Montreal and Toronto?

Keefe: It is very symbolic in terms of the history of it, but it has been a really long time. If you look at the Canadian division coming together here in this strange season, you looked at the potential of an opportunity such as this to occur where you can revive such a rivalry. It has been a regular-season battle, and the provincial battles and all of those sorts of rivalries in sports are real.

This is as real as it gets here now. It is a good opportunity for the fan bases to experience this. It is not quite the same when the buildings are empty, but you know there are going to be a lot of people in front of their TVs. We are looking forward to a really physical, competitive, and hard-fought series.

Having Thornton, Spezza, and Simmonds on a line together, how big of a valuable can this line be against Montreal?

Keefe: We hope it can be valuable, of course. All three players bring some very unique skills along with their experience. They are all big, strong guys as well. We are going to look to put them in good spots to succeed. All three people are very valuable in our room. We have great voices. They use those voices to tap into the experiences that they’ve had.

They have helped our team greatly this season — not just on the ice but in terms of our group really coming together. We talked just a bit ago about our improvements defensively and all of those kinds of things. That sort of stuff doesn’t happen if you don’t develop camaraderie amongst the team and accountability. All three of those guys — Spez, Jumbo, Simmer — have really led the way in that department.