In his press conference on the opening day of training camp, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed the pressure facing the team this season, his job security, Ilya Mikheyev’s role in wake of an alleged trade request over the offseason, and the competition for spots at training camp.
Kyle Dubas was referencing the fact that the left side is fairly wide open. What are you planning to do there starting with the on-ice sessions? How much does Matthews’ absence during camp impact all of that for you?
Keefe: Not having Auston for all of the on-ice sessions will limit some of the things we would like to do.
In terms of how we are going to address things and approach it, there are going to be different phases in the camp. In the beginning, you will see what the lines and things look like, but in the early stages, I am looking to provide opportunity to try different things with different players. As we move through the preseason, you’ll see things shift a little bit more as we watch and see what we think works or want to try differently.
It is nothing that is set in stone. That is probably what is the most exciting as a coach. You go into a camp where you have positions available and you have competition. We think we have a number of options both in the players that we have added and the players that are returning on the left side. That is something that we are excited about here.
We will start tomorrow with a look that we want to see, but it is not necessarily things we are even looking for in terms of line combinations per se. It is more about opportunity and having personalities together — matching leadership with younger players, and things like that — because it is not just about the NHL players but also the players that are developing for us. We want to make sure they continue on the path for growth because they are important for us.
How much do you expect Rasmus Sandin to blossom for you and become a full-time NHLer on the blue line?
Keefe: I expect him to continue to take steps. With all of the experiences that he had last season, you are expecting not just him but all of the young players to benefit from it. I know that he is excited to get going here. He is one of those guys that we will move around and play in different spots throughout the camp.
We gave him those opportunities last season, and he did well for us. We believe that will help him speed along his development.
Kyle Dubas was praising your ability to reinvent yourself. How difficult was it after what happened last year? What form might it take this season with the different lineup? Do you take a different mental approach with some of your guys, specifically the core four players?
Keefe: I don’t necessarily look at it as reinventing myself or anything like that. I believe in who I am. I also believe in a lot of the great things we did last season to put ourselves in a position to compete in the playoffs. Obviously, we didn’t get it done, and we recognize that.
An area of focus for us as a staff is to just continue to assure that the things that we do from day one of training camp all the way through the season help us be at our best when it counts the most.
The reality is that is something that was a focus for us last season as well. It clearly didn’t hold up. Our focus last season was to set the standard. We wanted to change our habits and our details — in particular, defensively, our work habits, and our competitiveness — and we made great strides there. But it wasn’t good enough.
Setting the standard was our focus last season. This season, as we come into it, we are looking to raise the standard. Clearly, we have to get to another level. That is our focus as a team and my focus as a coach.
I believe in the additions with our coaching staff as well as the additional depth that we have throughout our roster. There is a great belief I have in the character of the team and the talent. That gives me great excitement to get started on the ice tomorrow.
The two new assistant coaches — what are their responsibilities going to be?
Keefe: Dean Chynoweth comes over from Carlina, where he did an unbelievable job with a very good team and a very good defense core. He will work with the defense with us. He also ran one of the top penalty kills over the last three seasons in Carolina as well. He will work with the penalty kill with us as well and continue along that path. He has a great personality and great experience as both a player and a coach. He has added a lot to our staff here already.
Spencer Carbery is a guy who I have tremendous respect for from the time I met him when he worked with us at a development camp a number of years ago and when I was with the Marlies coaching against him in the American League in Hershey. He is coming off of being the coach of the year. The more you call around, you can’t hear enough good things about the job he has done there. He is a guy who has brought a lot to our staff.
[Carberry] is going to take the lead with our power play this season. Manny Malhotra will remain on the bench with us and support both Dean and Spencer in their roles as well as working with me and our forwards.
I think we have a really well-rounded staff. It has been great to work with them this summer with some of the protocols easing a little bit. We have been able to work a little bit closer. This season, we have been together a whole lot more in the lead-up to camp. We are ready to go.
Through parts of three seasons, what have you learned about the job that you didn’t know in terms of the demands, the pressure, or anything else?
Keefe: I don’t think there is anything there in terms of the demands or the pressure. I knew exactly what I was getting into there and I accept the responsibility that comes with that.
The thing that has continued to be something I think a great deal about is just the pace of the league. What I am referring to is the rhythm of the schedule. Obviously, there have been some wrinkles. Last season was much different than a normal season. All coaches were adjusting to that. But the pace of the league is significantly different in terms of the way the games come, the travel, and everything associated with that, which you don’t face in the American Hockey League quite the same.
There have been consistent adjustments to be made there for me in terms of practice planning, rest and recovery, how you build out your foundation as a team, and how you reinforce certain things as the season moves along. It becomes a lot harder to get real practice time. You get time on the ice to practice, but in many cases, you’re out there looking to give the guys a quick sweat, to feel the puck, and get them off the ice. In terms of really working at their game, it’s a lot more challenging.
That puts even more importance on training camp and preseason schedule. I am really excited to get started tomorrow with that.
You did a lot of good things last season defensively and structurally. It didn’t end so well. There has been a lot of talk about killer instinct. The team wants to move forward, but how do you cherry-pick the good things and try to forget the bad things?
Keefe: You never want to forget. That certainly is not what my job is or what my approach is. We want to learn from everything that we have gone through. Our players have taken the same approach. I know, from the discussions that I have had with them and the discussions the players have had amongst themselves, that there is no forgetting. There is learning and moving forward.
But we can’t lose sight of the fact that we did do a number of great things last season. We are not here to change our foundation that I believe we laid as a team last year. Part of the disappointment that we had and how bad it felt was because of the belief and excitement that was built up over the course of the season. The players earned that through the work that they put in.
We asked for a lot of changes in the habits and the details of how they played defensively. We saw significant growth that way. I don’t believe that those, in any way, were the reason we weren’t successful in the playoffs. The key for us here is the things that we do especially offensively that we need to hold up over the course of not just the regular season but the postseason as well — when it counts the most.
The power play really faded over the course of the season. How much did you ruminate over what went wrong and what might change this season on that front?
Keefe: A lot. That was a priority for us. Particularly after Dave Hakstol moved on, that was a real impetus for us to really look at, and we obviously had to make changes to our staff. It started with Dean Chynoweth but also just led to us taking a greater look at our staff, how we worked, and what we had been through over the course of the season specific to the power play.
There are a number of circumstances there that we hope don’t repeat themselves in terms of injuries and things that forced us to move things around more than we would’ve liked to. But we’ve got a fresh start here. Spencer has a great plan. We have Manny Malhotra to work with him as well, who has now been through it with our team and with our group.
We have some changes in personnel at the same time. We know who the returning players are. They are going to be really important, of course, on our power play. We have to establish a great foundation and look to build upon it throughout the season for sure.
It is something that we have looked at and talked about a lot. We will try some different looks through camp. We’ll look to get back to where we had it and look to sustain that.
Do you feel your job is more on the line this year than at any previous point?
Keefe: Those types of thoughts don’t come into my mind. These are things that are out of my control. Just like I ask the players to control what they can control in terms of their efforts, their habits, and their focus, I have to remain focused here. I have a job to do.
I recognize and accept the pressure and responsibility that come with this position. I knew that when I got into it. There hasn’t been a day where I thought about it. There also hasn’t been a day where I don’t recognize the responsibility I have towards our fans, our ownership, and our management team.
I am excited for a new season here. I believe greatly in our group and our staff. A day like today is a great one because we are in the moment here and we are going to remain there. The process of building a team begins tomorrow on the ice.
What sort of impact do you expect Greg Harden can make with the coaching staff this season?
Keefe: He is a great resource — not just for the players but for the coaching staff as well, and in all facets of our organization. He has lots of great experience and perspective. He is just another great resource for us to lean upon throughout the season.
When it comes to the goaltending, how do you see the position as the season opens? Is Jack Campbell the incumbent starter? Is it his job to lose? Or is it a true competition to be the starter in the season opener?
Keefe: I see it as a great competition. I don’t put a whole lot of emphasis on opening day or anything like that. As we very well know, it is a very long season. We have two great competitors there who have both come in off of great seasons and are very confident in their abilities.
Obviously, we developed great confidence in Jack, and he earned that through his performance last season. He has worked extremely hard this offseason. Petr comes in as well with great experience, great confidence, and has had great success as well.
We think we have got a great tandem there that will work together and compete on the ice starting tomorrow for the night but will do so for the benefit of the team. We know we are going to need both and will lean on both throughout the season.
Is Paul MacLean playing a role as well on the coaching staff this year?
Keefe: He is remaining on staff but not in the same role as last season. It will be more in an advisory type of role. He is actually recovering from surgery here right now — a second hip surgery for him. He is going to go through that process. He will be around us, but not in the same capacity as last season.
What are you looking for, whether it is on the ice or off the ice, that will show you that the players have taken the messages and the disappointment and are turning it into something positive?
Keefe: Just through the attitude and mindset of our team. We have had great discussions through the offseason. We are going to hit the ice. You need to see it through action.
As I said, there were a lot of things that we saw great progress in last season. I don’t remember exactly how much the media and press was around for the training camp we had at the start of last season, but we saw a great increase there. We are looking to just raise that standard and get it to another level this time around.
Whether it is me up here or the players, or if we’re in a meeting room — whatever it is — we can talk, plan, and do all of the things we want, but it is about action on the ice. That is what I am the most excited for tomorrow.
Last season, the team seemed to bounce back whenever it had a few bad games. The season never felt like it was derailing. How important will that be this year with even more pressure? You probably want to get into a time machine and go ahead to the playoffs. A lot of critics will be saying, “Yeah, but let’s see it come playoff time.” Psychologically, how do you get your players through that burden?
Keefe: I, of course, recognize the attention and urgency that comes with the playoffs. I actually don’t wish that I could get into a time machine. The process is the greatest part. It is what you go through in building a team.
The things you go through, from training camp, through an 82-game season, and then into the postseason are the things that, as you build through it, you lean on when adversity hits and things get tough. Those are the things that propel you forward. When you are a part of short-term events, it is great when you win, but it is not quite the same. It is the grind and it’s everything that you go through as a team — the ups and downs.
While I do think we had a very consistent season last year, there are a couple of segments in that season that I point at. We did lose, at one point in time, five games in a row. One time, we lost six out of seven. Those are the types of things that we looked at that were blips in our season last year. We don’t want to have those. We want to get back on track quickly. We did that a lot, but we didn’t do that all the time.
We set the standard last season and made great progress, but it clearly wasn’t good enough. Those are two things that I point to that looked most similar to what happened to us in the playoffs in terms of losing consecutively and not being able to get it back.
Like I said, there was great progress made with our team. We can’t lose sight of that. We also know it didn’t hold up in the end, so we have to take that to another level here.
What intrigues you most about Josh Ho-Sang and Nikita Gusev, both coming in on PTOs? What do they have to do to make the team?
Keefe: What intrigues me the most is the talent, skill, and added depth for our team. It is going to make our preseason and training camp a lot more competitive when players see more players like that around them. That makes for more competition throughout our camp. That is something we really like.
We have talked about the importance of that. We want to have that level of competitiveness right from day one. We like the competition in that as we go into it, I can’t tell you with great certainty what the lines will look like when we open in game one. That is a good feeling for me. It is because I have a number of options — not just the players you mentioned, but players we signed and brought in, and players that are returning for us who might be able to give us more.
I have watched a little bit — not a whole lot, but there has been a lot happening in the last number of weeks here in the facility in preparation for camp. I have looked at the rosters we have put together to start camp tomorrow, and I see great depth. I don’t see a lot of holes there that I have seen in other camps.
Camp crew ⛺️
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) September 22, 2021
The extra depth there is good for us. In terms of what we need to see from them, they need to be themselves and show their skill, but they also need to have the same foundation we are asking for from our players in terms of competitiveness, physicality, structure, and consistency that they bring with it. Those things are vital for all of the players that are seeking to make this team.
There was a report that Ilya Mikheyev requested a trade. Did you sense any dissatisfaction on his behalf, or that he wanted a larger role? What was your sense of his season?
Keefe: Miky is certainly one of those guys who wants a larger role. Any time you are running a team and you are running a lineup, you are going to have players that want more. That is a great thing as a coach. They are hungry for more and working for more.
He, like a lot of others, will get opportunities throughout this preseason to do more. I believe in Miky greatly. He is an extremely important player for us with the things that he does. If we can get him to add more to his game and take on more, it is even better for our team.