Sheldon Keefe clarifies comments about his elite players’ performance after loss to Arizona: “I used some of the wrong words”


After practice on Wednesday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed his comments about his elite players’ performance after the team’s loss to Arizona, the injury to Jake Muzzin, and Victor Mete and Nick Robertson entering the lineup for Thursday’s game against Dallas.

Practice Lines – October 19

Mitch Marner said you pulled him aside to explain the post-game comments the other night. What made you feel compelled to do that?

Keefe: Well, I had a lot of other guys to talk with him about — just regular check-ins I have with all of our players — but that was on the list of things to discuss. I guess I am glad I did because they didn’t know what I was talking about. I helped prepare them to deal with you guys today.

It was a regular check-in with the guys, but it was on the list to discuss. I used some of the wrong words to describe what I was trying to describe. The difference in the game was that we weren’t able to produce, whether on the power play or at five-on-five. That is really the difference with all of the puck time we had.

By no means was I meaning anything beyond that, which is what I wanted them to be sure of. As it turned out, they didn’t know what I was talking about, which is a good thing. At the same time, it is important that they know where I was coming from.

[Rosie DiManno question] You have played in the NHL under John Tortorella. You have seen coaches that maybe don’t watch their language. Are we really at the point where they are such delicate flowers that you have to watch the words you use?

Keefe: I don’t think so. It is a passionate sport. There is a lot of emotion in it. I don’t think we are at that point. I think we should always be cognizant of the words we are using and how we are communicating. At times, emotions maybe get the best of us in this game or in any competitive environment.

You want to communicate well. It is an important piece as a leader. You want to be cognizant of every word you use, body language, and all of those kinds of things. The nature of the sport sometimes doesn’t make it so. Sometimes, a little extra passion behind your message is what you are looking for.

For me, as a leader, or any leader, you have to find that balance.

When your players are not going to the net hard and aren’t engaged in the game the way you want them to be, how do you get them there?

Keefe: We just continue to emphasize it and practice it to get them to consistently feel that. I don’t know if it has been as much of an issue in previous games. It is more of a symptom of the Arizona game.

It is such a different game. In the first and third periods, we probably had the puck on our stuck 75-80% of the time. That is not the reality in the NHL in a lot of cases. It tends to change the look and feel of the game. We didn’t adapt well enough to that situation, but that hasn’t been as much of a concern for me in previous games.

It is something that, as a team, you need to be able to the mindset and recognize those moments when the opposition is taking away a lot of our options. You have to just be able to get the puck in there and get some bodies involved.

You had the struggles in October last season, and you really put it together last year. Are you still in the learning phase with this team this year?

Keefe: It is 82 games. A lot of things fall into place and you find your rhythm. I think it is fair to say that offensively, we haven’t found our rhythm yet, whether it is five-on-five or power play. At times, it has looked really good. At other times, not as much.

That is probably the one thing I look at. Whether it is our individual players or our team, we had a record-setting regular season last year. It took some time to get to that point. You do have that, but let’s not settle on that. Let’s be better than that. That is really the message.

How much concern is there for Jake Muzzin?

Keefe: Jake has had a number of injuries that have been a cause for concern for us. Any time a player gets injured and has had as many injuries as Jake has had to deal with, there is concern, of course. How much concern? I don’t know. It is probably still too early to say at this point.

He had an event he was at last night and looked like himself in a lot of ways. He is here in the facility today. We will let the process take care of itself with the medical folks and take it from there.

Did he get checked out for a concussion?

Keefe: Yeah. I am told it is not a head injury at all.

Is it still too early for a timeline for him?

Keefe: Yeah, I would say so.

What has your sense of the Matthews, Marner, and Bunting line through four games? As they try to find that rhythm, what can they do?

Keefe: Those guys have been on offense a lot. They have spent a lot of time in the offensive zone in each of the games that we have played. They haven’t been able to get to the net with the same regularity. Auston hasn’t had as many clear looks at the net.

The message to them is pretty similar to what it is to the rest of the team. Don’t get frustrated. Look to challenge and attack to the inside. Don’t get comfortable with possession and time in the offensive zone. Challenge the net. Look to make life difficult on the opposition.

Those guys are going to be fine. Whether it is five-on-five or power play, the rhythm is going to start to come. As things fall into place from there, all of a sudden, games aren’t as close. You start to play with leads more consistently. The other teams start taking chances. Things start to fall into place.

It is early here. We have to make sure to keep all of that in the proper perspective.

What do you expect from Victor Mete tomorrow night?

Keefe: He is a guy who comes in, and despite what would be his first game with us in the regular season, he has experience in the league. He should be confident and comfortable that way. He played a lot through preseason.

I expect him to skate and use his legs. I like the speed that he would bring to our backend both offensively and defensively. I am looking to see him be involved and increase the pace of play from the backend for us.

Why did you opt to put him with Mark Giordano and Rasmus Sandin with Justin Holl with Jake Muzzin out?

Keefe: Really, we just want to get a look. It is a chance to move Rasmus back to his natural side. Mete and Giordano spent time through camp together. It is just a look we wanted to see.

For now, we wanted to keep Rielly and Brodie together to have one consistent pair there rather than going with three different pairs. I expect the guys will move around when the game actually begins, but it is a good starting point for us.

You had Rasmus Sandin on the second power-play unit. Is that because Mark Giordano is going to penalty kill more in Jake Muzzin’s absence?

Keefe: That is part of it. Gio’s minutes are naturally going to increase in all regards despite the fact that we still have him down on that — we’ll call it — the third pair. We are going to move him up and play him against tougher competition and take on more load on the penalty kill.

At the same time, it gives us more opportunities to get more out of Rasmus. That is going to be important for us at this time.

Are you tempted to use Morgan Rielly more when you don’t have Jake Muzzin?

Keefe: That is the tendency — to go to the guys with more experience and your best people. I do think it is important to be mindful of the minutes our top guys are playing.

We just finished coming out of four games in six nights to start the season. That takes a toll. We will be going through similar stretches. We have to be mindful of that. It is hard to do in games at times when key moments call on it, you are chasing a game, or you are protecting a lead. You want to make sure you have your best people there.

At the same time, we need to get more out of our younger guys, whether it is Sandin coming in or Mete coming in. We need to get more out of those guys. Giving them the opportunity to go out and play and show we are confident in them is important from our end of it as well.

Is it good to have Filip Kral up just to get him some experience even if he doesn’t play in the next little while?

Keefe: Yeah, he is a guy we like. He has had two good camps with us here now. He hasn’t had any opportunities in regular seasons, but to have him here around our group and to stay ready is important.

I think it is also a good lesson to send to those who had to go down to the Marlies out of camp. If you look at it now — and whether it is Mete, Kral, Robertson, or Simmonds and his situation — things happen. You have to stay ready, stay sharp, and make sure that when the opportunity presents itself, you are giving us every reason to believe you are the person to come up — and once you are here, you’re ready to take advantage of it.

Because we have the additional roster flexibility now, having more guys around, available, and taking part in what we are doing is a very helpful thing.

Are you expecting Nick Robertson to come out tomorrow like a freed caged animal?

Keefe: I expect him to go back and play the way that he was. That was my message to him. He has been through some things here in the last 10 days or so, but he was playing really well. He went down and played some games with the Marlies. He did a good job there. He should be confident.

Just come in and take advantage of your opportunity. I think he is excited to play, no question.