After practice on Tuesday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the decision to move William Nylander into the bumper role on the power play and Mitch Marner back to the half wall in practice, the adversity the team is experiencing at the moment, and the slow start among the team’s top forwards.
What is your sense of how John Tavares as the captain of the team is helping the group navigate what is happening here?
Keefe: He is doing a good job of it. He is always on top of the pulse of the team talking to players. He and our entire leadership group talk amongst themselves frequently and communicate with the coaching staff frequently. He has done a nice job. It is not just him. Even though he is the captain, he has a lot of support around him. As individuals, the most experienced and veteran guys are helping to push the team to navigate our way through this.
How much do you rely on Jason Spezza as a go-between for you and the players?
Keefe: He is our most senior player, and he has been through a lot. He has a great perspective. He also has great respect among his teammates. I trust his instincts and his thoughts. At the same time, he is a guy I go to who can challenge and push.
With his own game, he has taken that on over the last year and a half or so. He has adapted his own game and his own role. That in itself allows him to have an even greater voice amongst the team because he is such an important player for us.
He is a nice guy to have around for sure. We have talked about it a lot. When we are going through what we are over the last week or so, it is very helpful.
Alex Kerfoot identified work ethic and focus as issues in the last couple of games. As a coach, what can you do for the players to improve on that? Or is that them needing to look inside themselves?
Keefe: I think it is a little bit of both. Coaches have a role in all of this, no doubt. In terms of work ethic, what I think he is alluding to and what we have been discussing… Our guys work hard. Our guys compete. You can’t survive in the league if you don’t work hard. Everyone is working hard, but there is another level to get to. We have yet to get there. That is the reality.
That is why, when I talked last night about some of the positives that came out of it, it was not just the fact that we did some good things, but it was a real nice example of what it takes. I thought that Carolina team, from the start of the game all the way through… There were chunks of the game where we matched them and were with them, especially in the early going in the first period, but it shows that we have more to give and another level to get to.
That is what we are referring to there. The level of focus… Whether you call it focus — you can use that word — or we have been using the word consistency a lot, it is the same kind of thing. It is one thing to do it for a little bit, but the good teams are the ones that are doing it most consistently. They are keeping that focus all of the time. It doesn’t come and go. That’s where we are at.
We have been in the game virtually every game we have played in here maybe save for the Pittsburgh game. Even in the Pittsburgh game, there were times where we were right there early. The game was 1-1. We had some really good opportunities. Auston on the power play hit the inside of the post and would’ve put us up 2-1 in that game. It doesn’t go our way. Rather than just staying with it, the game gets away on us.
It is little things like that which we are looking for in terms of the consistency. Last night, we scored first. I thought we did some good things despite the fact that we didn’t get as many pucks to the net as we would like. I thought we did a nice job save for a couple of times they got in behind us in the first period. We didn’t really give up much in terms of scoring chances. We were very competitive in the game. That is a very good sign for us, but doing it some of the time is not going to cut it.
Does early adversity present an opportunity to put words into action with the time to get through it?
Keefe: I believe we will get through it. That is why I have remained confident as we go through this. It sucks. It is not fun to go through or talk about. But it is part of the process.
It takes what it takes here. We think we have a really good team. We have lots of great ingredients and good players. We have played some good hockey. Some good hockey doesn’t cut it. We have to put it all together here.
We do believe in the group. We believe that this experience here now will help us down the line. Last season, we really didn’t face something like this until it counted the most. We didn’t find our way out of that one.
We are here. The guys remain committed. I remain confident. I have lots of belief in our group. Tomorrow night is another opportunity for us to put it on the ice.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner typically have strong starts out of the gate. Do you approach it differently with those guys who have had that experience versus guys who haven’t?
Keefe: I look at each situation as different and unique. With those guys, Auston is a different case because he missed camp and preseason. He has some different dynamics at play here that he is sorting through.
In Mitch’s case, the puck didn’t go in for him or his linemates early on in the season, but I thought he was playing really well and producing a lot for us. Now, all of a sudden, it snowballs. It starts to grow a little bit here. That dynamic changes. We are trying to just help support Mitch.
Our team is trying to support each other all the way through it. You have to stick with it in the team structure, the team system, be hard, and be competitive. Overall, those players are too good not to break free. That is really what we are looking for: a continued commitment to our team game. The individual pieces will come together inside of that.
What is the key for John Tavares and Mitch Marner to rediscover some of their chemistry?
Keefe: Just to keep playing. I thought those guys did some good things yesterday, too. John hit the post. I can’t remember what the score was at that time. We might have been down 2-1. He hit the post on a really good chance. Mitch had the puck a fair bit yesterday in a game where the puck was hard to come by.
I thought those guys did some good things. With Kerfoot as well, I was happy with that line, especially watching it back on video. They had lots of good speed on the wings. John found good spots and made little plays around the rink. I was really happy with that.
I didn’t think there were many issues defensively for that line. A lot of really good, positive things. That is why we wanted to stick with those lines and see what we can grow from that.
What was the thinking behind switching Nylander into the bumper and Marner onto the flank on the power play?
Keefe: We are going to see. We haven’t decided necessarily what we are going to look like tomorrow, but we have been focusing more on the look that you have seen to date. We haven’t really done much differently. We wanted to get some reps here today with a bit of a different look so that we can have an adjustment if we feel it is necessary.
Obviously, the results haven’t been there for us. We can’t just continue to do the same thing. It is just giving us another look and another option we may be able to go to. We don’t have a great deal of practice time here, so we wanted to get those touches in today.