Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach

After practice on Friday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed his team’s struggle to produce consistent enough five-on-five offense so far this season, deploying Mitch Marner on defense when chasing a lead late in third periods, and the status of Ilya Samsonov as he recovers from a knee injury.

How does the team balance wanting to generate more offense at five-on-five against limiting the giveaways you mentioned yesterday? Do you think those are tied together?

Keefe: I don’t see the connection to the giveaways necessarily. It is a mindset for us.

We had a really good night out in Pittsburgh at five-on-five and scored some great goals there. You can see some of the trends that helped us in that regard, whether it’s how we left our zone, how we attacked the offensive blue line and made plays on Mitch’s goal, or the net-front presence on John’s goal as well as Bunts’. There was a two-on-one play that Bunts scored on where we made a play in the neutral zone and got in behind their defense with speed on to it. Those are some good examples of how you score goals in the league.

We felt like we were trending in the right direction. We had the puck a lot last season, especially in the second period in the offensive zone, and there was just not nearly enough of that mindset to really challenge and threaten to get to the net. We need more urgency in that regard to create more.

Our individual players, as we look at it, have had opportunities to score in the last stretch. It hasn’t gone in for us. We need to be able to do that more consistently and generate more looks.

Is it about puck management and the mindset of refusing to make those kinds of mistakes?

Keefe: I don’t see the connection. It is two different things for me. When guys are giving the puck away, generally, it is well-intentioned. They are not trying to give the puck away. They are trying to make a play, but we often talk to the guys about making the right decision with the puck and taking what is there when there is an opportunity to make a play.

We don’t want to force anything. You don’t want to try to create something from nothing, especially when you are at a disadvantage and the other team has numbers or a tight gap. In Pittsburgh, I thought we did that very well. I think it was only an issue on a couple of instances [vs. the Devils], but that is all it takes when you are playing a team of New Jersey’s quality that is feeling it the way that they are.

It stands out in that sense, but I don’t think that was much of the issue for us. It was more what we did when we had the puck, especially in that second period when we were pretty dominant in terms of our time spent in the offensive zone. We didn’t generate nearly enough with it. We have to have more urgency to turn that puck time into scoring opportunities.

How perplexing is it to you that you are 22nd in the league in five-on-five offense?

Keefe: We have individual players that have historically produced a lot more than they have so far. As a team, the expectation is that we would generate more. We haven’t done that yet.

In terms of the actual goals, I look at it, and Auston is someone who hasn’t scored at nearly the same rate, but he had two breakaways against Vancouver and didn’t score on either. He had a breakaway in Pittsburgh and didn’t score there. He had a two-on-one and chose to pass it off to Bunts, which was a really good decision. He has had a couple right on the goal line that haven’t fallen. All of a sudden, if a couple of those go in, it changes things quite a bit.

My concern is not even the goals; it is the actual generation of chances, which goals will naturally come from. As much as it is not so early in the season anymore — we are approaching 20 games here — and New Jersey is at the top of the league in 5v5 production and we’re 20-whatever, the difference is about 12 goals, or less than one goal per game. You are not that far off. If you go on a good stretch, all of a sudden, that changes.

I think we have a team that has the ability to do that. We just have to focus on doing the right things to make it happen.

How do you get on the other side of it in overtime after one win in five tries? Is it a situation-by-situation thing?

Keefe: If you were to look at each of those games, each goal and each situation has a different feel to it. OT is generally a chaotic situation with the back and forth. A lot of times, your best scoring chance, if you miss, can turn into a great scoring opportunity the other way. That is what happens a lot in the league.

That hasn’t been the case for us in the last little while. It has been more so that we are either just flat-out getting beaten and giving the opposition a good look or we are forcing something that is not there and in turn giving them a great look that we are not even getting ourselves.

That has been more of a concern of late that we have to continue to work through and address. Some of the chaotic nature of it comes through generating your own looks. We haven’t even gotten that as much here in the last couple of times out.

Is it something you dedicate some practice time to replicating those situations or is it hard to mix it in with the regular prep?

Keefe: There have been a lot of things we are trying to sort through as a team. We feel like we have made a lot of progress in a number of areas that have put us in a position to get points, especially against really good teams, and to win games of late. That is one that clearly — because we haven’t been on the right side of it — has got to be addressed.

Normally, for me, it is quite far down the list because there are a lot of things that have to happen to even get an opportunity to be in that position, but clearly, when it hasn’t been going our way here, it needs some attention and more consistency in terms of how we handle the situation.

Mitch Marner mentioned he thought his shift on defense was going pretty well until the one-on-one situation against Nico Hischier. What are your thoughts on how it’s worked from the times you’ve seen it this season?

Keefe: We haven’t used it very often, but last night was the best that it worked out for us. The focus would be on the defending piece, but he was not out there to defend. He is out there to spark our offense.

If you go back and look at it, he had three touches on the breakout and they were three of the best touches we had the entire period in terms of getting out of our zone. He generated with speed coming out of our end. He delivered as good of a scoring chance and puck delivery to the net as we had all period. That is what I am looking for there.

In terms of the defending, it is not so much that it is secondary, but you are out there to spark the offense, and he did the job there. We have to sustain the offense so that he doesn’t even have to defend. That is more what I was concerned about there.

On the one-on-one he has to defend, the back pressure from the forwards was non-existent. That is more the stuff I am concerned about there.

Is it a gut feeling on whether you are going to go to that?

Keefe: I thought about going to it a little bit earlier. We were having such a hard time getting out of our zone last night in that third period. That is really where I think Mitch can help. That is exactly what happened.

In terms of the timing of it, it is more situational with what is happening in the game, how the forwards are playing, and how our bench is going. When you put him back there, you are obviously one less forward deep. It is all about managing that.

Mitch has been very willing to put in the work to be prepared for that situation. I loved how he went out and got the offense going with the puck on his stick. That is what you are looking for.

Did Ilya Samsonov skate today?

Keefe: He didn’t skate, but he was in the gym doing his thing and continuing to work towards a return. He is not at the point now where he is in any sort of push to come back. He has some more healing to do.

He is not quite at the point where he can do everything on the ice. They are more just wanting to make sure he is consistently seeing pucks. There are a lot of things he can do, but he is not quite at the point of being able to push it every day.