Ahead of the Maple Leafs’ game in Pittsburgh, Sheldon Keefe discussed his history with Kyle Dubas, the inconsistent play of his top line so far this season, and the increased production from his third line.
What does it feel like to coach against a Kyle Dubas team?
Keefe: It feels like any other game. I don’t know that you ever coach against a GM. It is not on my mind at all.
How much have you been in touch with him since he left the Leafs?
Keefe: A fair bit. There is a lot of history there and all of that. It is just more sharing stuff about the kids more than anything. That is really it.
How would you describe what Dubas has meant to your career?
Keefe: Huge, obviously. He gave me my first break in terms of an opportunity to coach in the OHL with Sault Ste. Marie. I think we have both grown a lot working together. I clearly wouldn’t be here today without his faith in me.
I would like to think I helped him at the same time a little bit along the way. It was a good relationship that we had to push and challenge one another. I am forever grateful for all that he has done.
He is on the other side here now. I have enjoyed the process of working with Tre just the same, getting to know him, and all of that. The GM-coach relationship is a very important one at all levels but in particular in the NHL. It has been a real good chance for me to grow as a coach to work with someone new.
Were you able to meet with him yesterday or was it too tight of a turnaround?
Keefe: Too tight. I was way too focused on our game last night and processing it all to even think about that.
What have you seen from Mitch Marner’s game lately?
Keefe: He is just not executing at the level that you’d expect from Mitch. At times, he’s had it. I thought, after being challenged after the second period last night, the line — and Mitch, in particular — had a better third period and showed some positive signs. But there is no doubt Mitch hasn’t found his groove here yet.
Can you pinpoint why the Matthews line hasn’t been generating as many shots and chances as they have in the past?
Keefe: They are not making plays. Plays are just dying on their sticks. That is a big part of it.
However, we are one game removed from them carrying us offensively against Minnesota in Sweden. They scored two five-on-five goals. They were our best line in that game. I have to be mindful of that and not just overreact to a game such as last night, although it certainly has my attention because it is happening more than I would like when it’s not positive enough.
When challenged before, they have responded. I thought Auston had a really strong game [in Chicago], especially early. I thought he was flying through the middle of the ice. I didn’t think he had enough support.
What is the key for Matthew Knies in that spot?
Keefe: It is a tough situation for a young guy. He is trying to learn the league. He is trying to get the puck to good players. A lot can get in your head. It is really just about simplifying, working, competing, being physical, and getting the puck on and off your stick quickly, whether it is a quick pass or a quick shot. Move it really quickly.
There are other challenges, right? As good of a season as Willy is having and as good as Tavares has been, we have yet to play against a team that doesn’t give the hardest matchups to the Matthews line. Matthews and whoever is playing with Matthews are going to have the hardest match-up every night. There hasn’t been a shift yet.
There are times when Willy is really rolling, and I go into the game wondering if the other team is going to match against Willy tonight. No, Willy gets the easier matchup, and certainly, Will has capitalized on that.
For a guy like Knies, it makes it even harder on him. He has to really focus on that. At the same time, there is a tremendous opportunity to play with good players. They just have to get it rolling.
As I challenged them after our Detroit game in Sweden, they were really good against Minnesota. I will be looking for more of the same.
With seven goals in seven games from the third line, is it enough runway to believe you have a third line you can rely on long term?
Keefe: It is early here yet. At times, defensively, you see some of the challenges with it. They have had to pull some pucks out of their net as we have gone through this process as well, but since we made that change, there has been a big shift in our team.
If you were just focused on the time we moved Domi into the third-line center and you looked at a lot of the stats and the way we have played as a team since we made the switch, the difference is night and day. Things have really kind of snapped into place since then.
Sometimes, the games and the results have been a little bit sloppy because of some mistakes like [vs. Chicago]. We in a lot of ways dominated the play in the game in terms of scoring chances, but we made big mistakes that cost us. That is really where our game has been.
The minutes and play we have gotten from the third line have really snapped some things into place very positively. You want to continue with that. At the same time, you are trying to get all of your lines rolling.
We feel good about the Tavares group and how they have gone. Kampf, Gregor, and Reaves were really good last night. We didn’t have all four going, though. That was a challenge for us, and we are looking to make that happen so we have more continuity and fluidity throughout our lineup without disruption.