On an off-ice day for the team, Sheldon Keefe discussed William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot stepping up in John Tavares’ absence, the leadership Jason Spezza and Joe Thornton are providing, the team’s unity and camaraderie, and the opportunity to close out the series against Montreal tomorrow night in Game 5.
William Nylander was saying that at times, he has needed a push from you. How do you think that has manifested itself in the last couple of years knowing he is having a pretty playoff right now?
Keefe: It is my job as a coach to push all of our players at times when they need it. Will is on that list, of course, like all of our guys. Credit goes to Will just for his mindset and the work that he has put in. He has recognized where he can be better and what he can offer our team. He has clearly been delivering on that since the playoffs have begun here, and really throughout the whole season.
He has had some really great moments where he has done a terrific job for us. We know what his skill set is and what he is capable of doing. When he does other little things on top of that, the results just seem to follow. He has done a real nice job. It is a great start for him here.
Last night, Jason Spezza mentioned he noticed William Nylander speaking up more on the bench. What growth have you seen from William in that regard?
Keefe: A big part of the growth is that he has recognized the responsibility that he has to the team. He has been delivering on that. With that comes increased confidence. I know that Will is not a guy who is short on confidence in any way. Having personal confidence is one thing, but having confidence within the team unit is a whole other thing. I think that is where we have seen the growth.
He recognizes the role that he has and the responsibility that comes with it. The fact that he is delivering on his end of it is giving him the confidence to be able to push others along the way.
William mentioned to us that John Tavares has been sending texts before the games on tactical things, giving the team a boost, and after games, there are FaceTime calls with him. How has he managed to stay a part of this even though he is at home? What optimism does it give to his teammates that they can see him and he is able to communicate with them?
Keefe: Yeah, I think that has been the real positive with this. After Game 1, John helped put everybody at ease. First of all, there was the fact that he was feeling well enough to communicate. Secondly, he took the initiative to do so knowing that it is a very concerning situation and the players care for him greatly.
For him to communicate, reach out, and stay on that to ensure the guys he is doing well — because he has been doing very well — is a very good thing for our team. He is the captain of the group, so for him to still be showing those leadership qualities that he has at this time of year is really important.
Having him in our postgame gatherings after a win is a nice touch as well. It is good to see. It is an off-day here for us today but the guys are still in the facility getting treatments, adjusting, and all of those kinds of things. John is in the facility here today reacclimating himself to the group and getting back going.
There are a lot of really positive things there, both in his recovery and having him around our group.
Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza have had some ups and downs in this series. Last night, it was a nice up. When you are talking about William or Mitch’s play defensively, does seeing what Joe and Jason are going through have an impact on the younger players?
Keefe: There is no question that with a lot of things that happen with our team — when you see the growth of our team, the maturity of our team, and the way we have, throughout the regular season and the start of this playoff, handled the emotional swings — you can’t ignore the contribution of the veteran players and their experience. Their voice, their experience, their level of calm in those situations, the confidence in the group — that stuff is over and above what the on-ice contribution.
That is the value of those players. That is why we have taken a step as a team. All of our players have taken a step in terms of the accountability within and the responsibilities you have to your teammates. It has been really good in that area. That has been the area of the most growth for our team from last season to this.
The voices of those two guys, in particular, have really helped us in that regard. That is where their value is to our team outside of what you see on the ice. Last night, they make contributions and score very important goals. Whether they are scoring or not, I believe those guys raise the level of everybody else on our team and make us a cohesive unit.
In an unusual season with no fans in the building, a tough schedule, and Covid restrictions for players, has it raised the importance or changed the role of leadership in the playoffs?
Keefe: I think the leadership has always been important at any time, but certainly, with all of the different things you just mentioned that go into a season like this, the leadership and camaraderie that we have been talking about here are more important than ever because there are so many other stresses happening.
In the playoffs, one of the big things that really push a team over the top is — when things are really difficult, how willing are you to push just a little bit harder, or are you willing to give in? That is really the mental challenge that you go through with the emotional swings of playoffs. The more together you are as a team, the more leadership you have, and the more you enjoy being around one another, the more likely you are to go on the side of pushing through.
That is really what we have tried to focus on from day one of training camp with challenging our players, pushing them extremely hard, getting them comfortable playing in situations that are hard and difficult, and breeding that leadership and together within that. That has been a big focus for us. It is going to remain something that is a strength of our team.
In a season like this, it is even more important because there are so many extra challenges and layers that you are going through to be able to play within this pandemic.
Sometimes, with an organization with the history that the Leafs have, the players and coaches get tied to events that happened before you got here. In light of that fact, how do you view the opportunity to win a playoff series and do something that hasn’t been done in this city in a long time?
Keefe: I certainly recognize the opportunity and the responsibility that I have as one of the leaders of the organization. We know this is a hurdle we have to get over here. We don’t put any of that on the players. We have a very small group of players that have been here for multiple years.
This group of players I look at with its own identity — not attached to anything that has happened in the past. I think it is important inside of our walls that the guys don’t wear any of those types of pressures.
As an organization, of course, we need to deliver for our fans. We have given ourselves a great opportunity to do that. There is a reason why it has been this many years. It is because closing out a series is a very difficult thing to do. We respect that greatly. We respect our opponent. We know tomorrow night’s game is going to be the hardest one in the series.
Coming into the season, did you have a conversation at all with Alex Kerfoot about changing his role and becoming a more complete player?
Keefe: Yeah, we spoke in the offseason. We have had a number of discussions throughout the regular season. I had identified a really clear role for him. We wanted to give him an opportunity for that. The season being what it is with injuries and whatnot made it so we had to move him around. I have revisited that with him.
The biggest thing is that I just think he has a lot of really big assets as a player both offensively and defensively. The work ethic and competitiveness that goes with it, the speed, the skill set — with all of those kinds of things, he has the skill set that you can move around.
We wanted to make it very clear to him that he is an important guy for us. It can be a somewhat heavy thing when you look at the lineup on this team and you are playing behind Auston Matthews and John Tavares in terms of, “Where do I fit in? Where is my opportunity to grow and take a step as a player?” It was more about making it very clear to him that he is an important guy for us.
He has been when we have been healthy. Now, through the playoffs with the injury situations we have had, he has stepped up and has found another level, playing as good of hockey as I have seen from him.
What has been fueling this team that might be different from years past?
Keefe: The simple thing for me is just unity, camaraderie. This is a true team. It just goes to show the personalities that we have and how it is all coming together. They enjoy being around each other. I think it is something that is thrown around a lot across the league and all of that, but I really feel it this season. The players certainly do. I have had a number of conversations with them about that.
You really don’t even have to speak to anyone. You just have to b around our group, listen to them, and hear them. They are having fun. They are enjoying being together.
That is something that was a big priority for us coming into the season: to create that environment. It is something we were really mindful of when we were making additions to our team. That has manifested itself into what we thought it could be. That has been the real foundation for us throughout the regular season and to this point in order to put us into a good spot here.
We are excited about the opportunity to compete again tomorrow. It is a huge chance for our team to take another big step in what is a very difficult thing to accomplish in closing out a series.
What do you need to be cautious about going into tomorrow?
Keefe: We need to be cautious of our opponent, first of all. We have great respect for them and know they are going to compete really hard tomorrow to make things really difficult on us. In the first period of every game we have played in the series, it has been really tight. We have to anticipate that it is going to be another very tight game and we have to be prepared for it.
It is going to be the most difficult game of the series. I think that is really what we have to be cautious about: continuing to get better. We were in here as a coaching staff today talking about where we can get better going into tomorrow. We are not comfortable at all with the way we have played. We think we can play a whole lot better.
The players are in here getting treatment and doing what they need to do to get better for tomorrow. That is really what it is about. Every time out, it is going to get harder. You have to continue to grow and get better.
In terms of us being cautious, I don’t really know that there is anything cautious about it. It is more about being the attack in terms of our preparations knowing that we have to be better tomorrow.