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

After practice on Thursday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed the areas for improvement the team has identified for the upcoming regular season, Wayne Simmonds’ battle for a roster spot, and the controversy surrounding Hockey Canada.

Practice Lines – October 6

You guys had a great regular season last year. Where do you see areas for improvement this year?

Keefe: We do have a system in place that works for us. We are always trying to get better at the details and consistency with which we execute. If there has been an area of focus for us through camp, it has been trying to get a lot quicker through the neutral zone both on offense and defense coming back. That has been an area of focus for us.

We have a pretty good foundation right now with our team and what the expectations are. It has been about bringing our newer guys up to speed and getting our returning guys to lead the way in that area and also getting them ready to play an NHL season.

What do you think of Wayne Simmonds’ camp and how much are you really evaluating a veteran like him? How much does his past track record speak for itself versus what he does in a couple of weeks of camp?

Keefe: Both things you are weighing against one another. There is a track record there and a history — not just in the league, but with our team — so you put great value on that. At the same time, it is competitive both in players who have signed with us and players who are pushing from the Marlies. When you are a player that has played at the bottom end of the roster and you are a team that is trying to get better, there is going to be competition there.

As I have talked about, I think the competition this year is far greater and more competitive than I have seen in any other year. Simmer is caught in that mix, but I think if we just isolate him and his camp, he has done a good job in his effort, execution, and attitude toward how he’s handled it knowing that he is in a battle here — not unlike how he was in a battle to get into the lineup towards the end of last season.

He has been a true professional in that sense. He is still competing. There is still time to go here. The players’ performances will have a say in how this all shakes out. The salary cap is going to have its say in how this shakes out as well as injuries and such. There are lots of things that can happen here in the next little bit. I am really happy with all of the guys that have been in the competition for spots. They haven’t let up.

What have you seen in Alex Steeves in this camp? He mentioned he really wanted to be on this trip for the team getaway to Gravenhurst.

Keefe: The big thing that really tipped the scales for him coming on this trip — it has been very obvious to me that he really wanted this. When I say that, it is just in his effort toward going above and beyond and separating himself in terms of the effort, the physicality, and the competitiveness. Not every day has been a perfect day, but to me, he has found another level in really putting himself out there at, frankly speaking, another level than those he is competing with.

That is why he is on this trip. I thought he played well for us last season as well in the time that he was here. All of those things combined, when you are making a shorter list of guys to bring out here, he is a guy we wanted to have on it.

With the spirit of this trip to Gravenhurst being about team bonding and team chemistry, what has your perspective been on how Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov’s relationship and comfort with one another are progressing?

Keefe: I think it has been great. There are a number of different activities that the players do together, and it gives them the opportunity to gel and get to know each other. There is the gelling within the team itself, and then there are the two goalies and their tandem. You kind of want to be a team within the team. We’re seeing those guys grow, along with Curtis Sanford and his leadership with him.  This whole camp, in particular this trip, has been particularly productive in all regards there.

Is the plan to go with Ilya Samsonov on Friday and Matt Murray on Saturday?

Keefe: That is the plan, yes.

Would you be comfortable with a tandem with those two splitting the duties? Do you want someone to emerge?

Keefe: You need two goaltenders in today’s NHL. We expect to use both guys. I don’t think it will be a straight-up split in terms of alternating or anything like that. The goalies will sort that out with their performance. We believe in both guys.

What do you think of the controversy over the Hockey Canada management?

Keefe: I am not involved in any of that decision-making. I know the NHL has its own investigation and things going on. It is obvious and fair to say that there needs to be some answers. No one is happy with the things that have been reported. I’ll just have to leave it at that.