After camp on Sunday, Sheldon Keefe discussed Auston Matthews’ progress as he nears a return to game action, impressions of the team’s camp so far, Morgan Rielly’s mindset entering a contract season, and what Adam Brooks and Pierre Engvall need to do to secure roster spots.
Was it a good step in Auston Matthews’ progress today?
Keefe: A really good step. He did a lot more today than we were expecting him to, frankly. He wanted to keep going. He felt good. He shot the puck a lot harder today. It was the first time I saw him really leaning into one-timers and such. It was very clear he was feeling good.
As I said, he chose to continue going through drills and going through some contact stuff, which we didn’t expect him to do today and he wanted to. He felt very good. Of course, that is positive.
How valuable might it be getting him into a preseason game?
Keefe: I think there would be value in that, but we are not pushing for that or anything like that. When he says he is ready and the medical team says he is ready, he will be in. Whether that is in preseason or if it’s game one, we don’t know. We are trending in the right direction for sure.
Jason Spezza was saying the true measure of a player isn’t in camp — it’s in November or December in an 82-game season, where you have to be bringing it every day. Would you agree with that?
Keefe: Certainly. Consistency is what it is all about. That is the game. That is individually and collectively as a team. It is consistency. But there are phases. You can only deal with each game as it comes. Each player should be focused on having the best day possible. Those that can do it most consistently are the ones who stick around, help you through the season, and establish themselves as NHLers. You have to build the base up.
We have a lot of very established players here who we know are going to be on our team. We have some others we are going to get to know. We will see how it works out this week. As I have alluded to here, there is a lot of fluctuation and a lot of opportunities for those that won’t get to start with us.
Overall, have you been satisfied with the level of what you have seen from your players in camp so far?
Keefe: I have, but I think we had a bit of a dip late in the last week, which was really understandable. I knew last week was going to be a challenge. We chose to give them the early day off after the third day. We thought the first three days were going to be challenging, and they were. With the way the schedule is set up, we were going to have five consecutive days, which is a lot.
We have been pushing the guys and have had longer practices than we would ever have in season. We expected a bit of a dip going into the Blue and White game, and I think we saw that. They got a day off yesterday, and I liked the energy and pace that we had today.
I can tell we have a lot of guys who want to get on with it. The fact that we have back-to-back games coming up, I think, is going to be helpful for that. We do expect, as we push past Tuesday, that the group will be significantly reduced. That will allow us to focus in a bit more on that final game.
Would you rather the camp be shorter or longer?
Keefe: It is a tough question to answer. You have your NHL guys that probably don’t need as much time as there is here — three weeks to get ready for regular season — given how hard they train and how prepared they are through the offseason. You are also trying to evaluate your team, develop players, get to know the new guys, and give them full opportunities to establish themselves. That takes some time to play out.
I don’t think there is a right answer to that question. If you asked the NHL players, they would probably just want to play a game or two and get going. But you are trying to build a team, and that takes more than just the guys that are going to start on the opening day roster.
That is what these three weeks are about: Creating opportunities for guys to play with different players, play in games, have some scrimmages, and practice with NHL guys. It gives us a greater sense of where they are at and helps us with their development. There is a lot of value in that within these three weeks.
When you are familiar with guys like Pierre Engvall and Adam Brooks, what are you looking for in camp from them?
Keefe: I am just looking for those guys to separate themselves, especially from those that are American league players who are in their situation trying to find their way to the NHL. They should be on another level because of the experience they have had. If you are an everyday NHL player, those sort of things can really stand out.
I made a comment about Kase at some point here that it is just very clear when you watch him that he is an NHL player. He just stands out and jumps out to you. That is the level of separation you are looking for.
That is really it. Pierre, unfortunately, has been banged up and hasn’t skated much. He is going to skate today. As long as he responds well tomorrow morning, he is going to play tomorrow night. It is good to get him going as we have missed him through this camp.
With any of the players, you are looking for some separation there. Those are the kinds of decisions that the players make for you because it becomes obvious. The decisions really should be obvious if you are an NHL player. Where it gets really challenging is that sometimes you have a lot of depth, or sometimes it’s maybe because guys aren’t quite ready.
Why do you think Morgan Rielly will be able to navigate a contract year successfully this season?
Keefe: I think he is just a mature guy. He is very confident in who he is. My interactions with him have been very good or at least very normal. I think he is just approaching this as any other season, and yet he knows the urgency that we have here as a group.
He has been through more than anybody here in our organization with the players that we have. I think he is just focused on himself being prepared for the season and also on us helping us build a team here that can take the necessary steps we know we can take.
Tom Brady is back in New England tonight. Is there anything you have taken from the way Brady and Belichick have operated over the years in terms of principles of how a coach can reach a superstar and craft that sort of relationship?
Keefe: It is just the fact that they have had the relationship that they’ve had and have had so much success throughout. I don’t profess to know a lot about football necessarily, but there are the leadership pieces of it and the fact that, from what I gather, they have pushed each other very hard, made each other better, and challenged each other.
I think that is all part of a successful program — when you can challenge people and you can be challenged yourself knowing that you are all in it for the same purpose. There are pieces inside of that we are trying to establish as we know we have to work together to get to where we need to be.