After practice on Tuesday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed his decision to keep Wayne Simmonds on the fourth line for Wednesday’s game against Boston, the challenge of facing the Bruins without Auston Matthews, and the defense falling into place after TJ Brodie’s return.
Practice Lines – January 31
Samsonov not taking part in practice, but he was on the ice putting work in before the session began.
Goaltender has made 6 consecutive starts for #Leafs.
— David Alter (@dalter) January 31, 2023
What have you liked from Wayne Simmonds to earn him another shot again on the fourth line on Wednesday vs. Boston?
Keefe: When I looked at our game in Ottawa, one of the things I didn’t like in that game is that I thought, at times when things weren’t going well, we were real quiet in the game — both in our performance and on our bench. That is something that Simmer brings. He livens the group.
I really liked what he brought in that sense on the bench and such the other night. He and his line did a good job for us. I thought he brought something very similar when we played out in Boston.
For that reason, you want to keep him involved and know that he is an important guy. Despite the fact that he hasn’t played a lot, what he brings is unique and nice to have.
Does Ilya Samsonov lose anything by missing practice, or does the team lose anything? How do you balance it when giving him the day off?
Keefe: I don’t think the team loses anything. I think the goalies themselves are separate from the practice and separate from everything that we are doing. It is all about the goalies’ preparation. Today, it was determined that it was the best way to approach the day for him. He will skate again in the morning tomorrow.
It is all about preparing for one game, really. That is the unique nature of this. You are really just preparing for the one game. Despite the day off yesterday, we just decided that it was the best way to approach the day for Sammy. He will be ready for tomorrow.
What is your sense of how he is navigating so many emotionally-challenging games lately — entering in relief, starting at the last minute versus Ottawa, and playing against his old team?
Keefe: It has been really great how he has kept a level head about it. He made it known that when we played out in Washington, it was a game he was nervous and uncomfortable in. He looked that way in the net. But it was a chance for him to grow from that experience knowing there were going to be more times when he would be uncomfortable going ahead.
There was another one the other night [vs. Ottawa]. It was not a great night, and the team didn’t have a good night in front of him. He has to go in unannounced without preparation. He has to bounce back from that against his old team the very next game. He managed that very well.
I think he has managed it very well on the days in between just by coming in with a good attitude and a good approach to get to the work and do what Curtis Sanford is asking of him. It has been really great to see him grow through this.
With all your six defensemen in order now, how reassuring is it to know you can spread those minutes around with so many defensemen capable of contributing in a bunch of ways as opposed to relying on a couple?
Keefe: It is important. We will see how it all shakes out. What is nice about having all six is that it just slots everybody in nicely in terms of assignments and matchups. The minutes is the next piece. We will see how that goes.
We have guys like Rielly and Brodie, in particular, who can and will take on a lot of minutes. It is a balance, right? Everybody talks about managing the minutes and load management or whatever it might be, but you have to win the hockey games. You have to play, and you have to compete.
There is still a lot of hockey to be played here. We are just going to keep our focus on deploying our guys the best we can.
I have said it before. It is one thing when you have injuries and such. You are forced to adapt and adjust. Your team kind of rallies around those types of moments. The moment you start making decisions about maybe playing guys you wouldn’t otherwise play because of who you have on your bench, it changes the mindset of your team a little bit.
All of a sudden, the players start to wonder and question, “Why are we playing like this? Why are we changing things?” That is on me to manage the energy level of the players while still maintaining the focus of our team, most importantly.
How do you explain the Bruins’ level of success this year?
Keefe: Just tremendous consistency and buy-in. They have great players. They have for a very long time now. They have been a very good team because of that.
They have maintained their ability defensively. They have been at the top of the league in terms of defending for what feels like a decade now. Offensively, things have been very good for them there, too.
They have just been more consistent than everyone else in the league in all facets of the game.
How do you view the matchup without Auston Matthews?
Keefe: I just view it as any other game. I don’t overthink it in terms of who is in or who is out. We have to prepare our team.
Our team has the ability to beat anybody no matter who is in or out. Every team does. This team we are playing against in Boston started the season without some key players, and it didn’t faze them one bit no matter who has been in or out on forward or on defense.
That has been a good trait of our team. We are hoping for that to continue. That won’t be able to be the case unless we continue to focus on our team game.
What do you notice about the power play’s ability to remain productive without Matthews?
Keefe: We still have good players. We have other guys out there. There is a structure in place that allows the puck to change hands and get to the net. You see the goal that Bunts scored the other night.
It maybe has a bit of a different look on the power play when Auston comes out, but then you put another guy like Bunts in there, and you have him in addition to John. Those are two guys that are hungry, in the slot, and around the net.
There are still some positive things there. We saw some of that come out when we have the five forwards. When Auston comes out, you don’t get the five forwards, but you get Bunts back involved.
He has had that experience now. With what he has taken away from playing with those guys with the five forwards, I think you see some of those benefits from it.