Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs

After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the callup of defenseman Carl Dahlstrom (expected to play vs. NYI), Petr Mrazek starting on Saturday, the team’s fourth line, the play of the Tavares line of late, and clarified his post-game comments about the team playing “soft” against the Rangers.

Practice Lines – January 21

Keefe addresses his comments on the team’s “softness” vs. NYR

In his opening remarks, the Leafs head coach felt the need to clarify his comments about the team playing “soft” in the 6-3 loss to the New York Rangers on Wednesday night after the quote made the rounds in the media over the past few days.

I just wanted to take a second and clarify my position or remarks from the other night.

With our team, we have competed at a very high level all season long. We have been a team that has been difficult to play against. When we are at our best, we are a team that has played with the best in the league and established ourselves amongst the best in the league. That has been through a foundation of competitiveness, physicality, and structure.

We continue to work at the consistency piece. That is where we need to continue to work to get better. My belief in this team has not changed in any way. It is just the fact that our standard slipped the other night when playing with the lead in the second and third periods. We can’t win by playing that way.

I believe we have earned the right through how we have played and through the type of players that we have. I know what we are capable of as a team. We have earned the right to have high expectations and high standards around here. I will continue to push and challenge our team towards those standards.

Really, that was what I was getting at the other night.

When you described the team’s play on Wednesday as soft, is that a reflection of the mental side, the physical side, or both?

Keefe: As I mentioned, I think it was a reflection of how we played in that game and specifically how we played with the lead. Because of how we have played as a team with our structure, when we are at our best — like we were at the start of the game and have been through for long stretches of the season — we are hard to play against. [The other team] doesn’t have the puck very often. There is puck pressure. We are on top of you quickly. We get to pucks first.

All of those kinds of things make us a hard team to play against. We didn’t do that when we had the lead in the second and the third period. That is really what I am referring to. We made it easy on the opposition. You can’t win consistently playing that way.

We know that. We have shown that we have learned those lessons along the way. That standard slipped the other night. That is why I referred to it as being different than some of the previous games where we had given up leads and were playing against teams that wore us down, are elite teams in their own right with elite players, and made it hard on us.

I thought a lot of it was self-inflicted with how we played the other night. We have proven to be better than that.

What was the message to the players in the couple of days since the loss?

Keefe: I didn’t talk to the team after the game. We had talked after the second intermission. The message was pretty similar. I don’t say things to the media or in the media — especially if it is to that effect — if I haven’t already spoken in that tone to the team. They are not caught by surprise in that sense.

My message to my team is what I was saying earlier. We have played to a high level all season. The standard and expectation that I have for our team is set based on what we have shown the ability to do. We have done it over long stretches of this season and last season.

My belief in this team is extremely strong. That is why the expectations are so high and why the disappointment is there when we don’t meet those expectations. There is a high level of accountability around here amongst ourselves and to our fans.

We have been a team that all season has played hard and played with structure. That has given us, with the talent and ability to play on offense, the ability to be amongst the top teams in our league and compete in a very difficult division. We will get right back to that tomorrow.

There was a little bit more instruction after practice, and there were one-on-one messages to certain forwards on the team. Is some of what you were telling us also part of that? Is it about the game or just life that you’re talking about in those one-on-ones?

Keefe: A little bit of both. A little bit of reinforcing the message. I had a lot of individual and small-group meetings before practice and a full team meeting as well. You are just continuing some of those conversations on the ice or getting to guys you haven’t gotten to.

Some of it was related to the other night. Some of it is related to what is ahead. I think those conversations are really important coming off of the game the other night, having a day off yesterday, and not seeing the guys. It was important to get those conversations in.

Is there an update on Ondrej Kase and Justin Holl? Are they still in protocol?

Keefe: Kase and Holl — I am not sure about the timing of their flights, but they are flying to join the team later today. They should be available, if all goes well, to skate tomorrow morning. I am not expecting either of them to play at this point given that they haven’t skated, but we will be happy to see them rejoin the team tomorrow.

What attributes does Carl Dahlstrom bring to the lineup?

Keefe: He has got the ability to help in lots of different ways. He moves around the ice well. He can make a pass and help you offensively moving the puck up the ice. Also, he defends well.

He showed on the ice today what we had thought. He is building off of the good play he’s had with the Marlies with good gap control. He is a big guy with a long stick and closes on things that way. He uses those tools to defend.

He is a guy who hasn’t gotten a great deal of opportunity here. He had camp and preseason and those kinds of things, but we thought here now — with the opportunity available on defense that hasn’t been there throughout much of the season — was as good a time as any to give him a chance.

He has done a really good job with the Marlies. We like him. We’re going to give him a chance.

Was starting Petr Mrazek tomorrow night the plan going into the trip?

Keefe: I guess you could call it a scheduled start for Petr. We just feel it is important to get Petr back in again. As we talked about when we played in Arizona, he hasn’t played a lot. He is an important part of our team. We need to get him in our net and get him some reps here. We are certainly going to need him as the calendar turns to February.

Jack has played a lot over the course of the season — not necessarily in the last few weeks because of the schedule being what it is, but if you look at the total workload, we are looking for these pockets to get both Jack rest and Petr an increased workload.

We just thought we would stay with your scheduled start for Petr here.

The identity line of the Islanders — what challenge does that bring and how might you approach it with matchups? 

Keefe: They are dubbed that identity line because they go out and play a very simple, straightforward game that really embodies what their team is about. They make it hard on you. They are physical. We played against them earlier this season and we felt that as well.

In terms of matchups, we don’t have last change, and that is a group that they trust and look to play against any line. All of our players will have to be prepared to play through that. It is something that we have done before. Our guys are more than capable of doing so.

You have to be aware of not just them but their whole team and how they play.  They are playing a far better game right now than the last time that we saw them. They have a lot more players in the lineup from when we saw them last.

We have got to just make sure we are focused on our game and being at our best. We had a really good start again the other night. We are looking to do that again, and we are looking to finish the job and be consistent all the way through the game.

What have you seen of late from the Tavares line?

Keefe: I think they have done a good job of consistently generating offense and chances for us. I don’t think the line has had the same type of rhythm that they had prior to Christmas. I think they have another level to get to, is what I would say.

When I looked back on the game, I thought the Kampf line had a really strong game from start to finish with the exception of a couple of shifts that were tough on us. That line was really strong. Save for that, I thought our other three lines could’ve been a lot better — the Tavares line and the Matthews line just the same.

We talked about the play of the fourth line of the Islanders. It is a big part of their team and a big part of the game against the Rangers the other night. We need to get more out of [our fourth] line as well.

That is part of us just being hard to play against: shift over shift, having everybody involved.