After Monday’s practice, Sheldon Keefe discussed the decision to split up Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and the team’s overall play through 19 games (10-6-3, with five wins in regulation).
Practice Lines – Nov. 27
Lines at Leafs practice
Knies – Matthews – Nylander
Bertuzzi – Tavares – Marner
Robertson – Domi – Jarnkrok
Gregor – Kampf – Reaves
Rielly – Brodie
Giordano – McCabe
Benoit – Timmins
Samsonov & Woll
Host Panthers Tuesday@TSN_Edge
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) November 27, 2023
Why was now the time to split up Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner onto different lines?
Keefe: We are coming off of four games in a row on the road here now. We are coming back home. It is a chance to kind of reset. We have been talking a lot about that group.
There has been great reluctance on my part to make a change to the Tavares group, in particular. With Willy, in particular, he has really found a nice groove. His game has been going so well. You are reluctant to make a change to him and his situation. You don’t want to affect guys who were rolling and feeling good in order to boost other groups.
But I think the time is right. Even for Willy himself, since coming back from Sweden, I don’t think it has gone as well for him. The timing is right there.
What have you seen from Matthews and Marner over the last five to seven games that has made it necessary?
Keefe: I don’t think it’s the last five or seven games. It’s been up and down, right? I don’t think they had a great game against Detroit in Sweden. I thought they were our best line when they scored two five-on-five goals for us against Minnesota. I don’t think they were as good against Chicago. I thought they were better against Pittsburgh.
If you look at the way it has gone for them this season, it is the way it has been. They have had really big nights, and they have had other nights where they haven’t been effective at all. You are just trying to find more consistency there.
You look at changing it. We looked at some other options as well with some of the rest of our lineup and moving things around. Ultimately, we just sort of settled on this. The timing was right for the reasons I mentioned in regard to both Willy and Mitch.
Mitch was saying he needs to relax a bit and breathe. What is your sense of how much pressure he is putting on himself and where he is at mentally right now?
Keefe: Players of that calibre who have had so much success have high expectations of themselves. Mitch is no different.
Sure, as things start to pile up, you want to do better. When the team doesn’t get the results as we haven’t in these past couple of games, you start to wear it a little bit more. It is natural. It is because he cares. He knows he needs to be better. We are going to help him through it.
We have been talking with him and meeting with him. We have been working on some things on the ice that I think he has to focus on and can help him start to be the Mitch Marner that we know.
He went through stretches like this last season, too, especially in the early going. It turned out that he had an incredible season for us. I don’t expect it will be any different for him.
Is it easier to make the switch when you know what Nylander and Matthews have done together and what Marner and Tavares have done together in past seasons?
Keefe: For sure. I have known that. You guys have been talking to me about it a lot for the last number of days, but it has been an internal discussion for us for a good chunk of time now.
Willy has been playing so well. With Willy, Tavares and Bertuzzi have found such good chemistry that you have been reluctant to mess with that. It is more so just challenging Auston and Mitch to sort it out and be better.
Things change, you get back from the road, and maybe things start to wind down a little bit in terms of the high that Willy was on. You can kind of reset some things. That is really it.
There is lots of history there of those guys having success together and of me moving them around.
Does Nylander’s start to the season increase your comfort with him in some of those defensive situations and matchups he will face with Matthews?
Keefe: Yeah, especially because he has had the puck so much. He hasn’t had to defend too much. That is probably the biggest change. He has not been on our half of the ice as much. He is in control of the play.
I think Willy wants to grow in all areas of his game — not just being a more consistent threat offensively. We have talked a lot over the years about being great and influencing the game in all areas.
When you look at Auston and Mitch, those guys have really set the standard for us in that regard for a number of years. Mitch was a Selke candidate last year. Auston is one of the top defensive centers in the league. Tavares has improved a lot. Willy has done the same thing.
For our team and those guys in particular, a lot of their best defending comes from how they play on offense. To me, that is where we have to continue to improve.
How are you feeling about the state of the team at this point in the season with five regulation wins in 19 games?
Keefe: You guys are talking a lot about that now, but I have been talking about it for months. You are about a month behind me.
To me, we have trended in the right direction for quite a while. It doesn’t always look like it in the results. We have made some mistakes that have ended up in our net.
I think we have been picking up lots of points of late. We have been finding ways to win. Obviously, it was not the case on the weekend, but as I have talked about, we made some changes to our group. We reshuffled our lines.
I am not sure where we would be at now — seven or eight games or so — but in that period of time, to me, our team has improved a lot in terms of our process and how we are playing. We have been one of the top teams in the league defensively. The PK hasn’t been scored on in four games in a row.
There are positive things happening with our group. You just maybe have to look deeper to find them sometimes. Your job is to report on what is happening with the results. My job is to police the process, dig in deeper, and make decisions.
I see positive trends. We just have to find ways to score more, make one fewer mistake, or get one more save. That is usually the difference between winning in regulation or winning in overtime.
To me, especially in this sample since Domi shifted down to the third-line center spot, the team has looked a lot more like it has in the past. I believe the results will follow.
Where did you expect the team to be by this point in the season?
Keefe: I didn’t look too far ahead. I am not into projections or setting goals. You take every day as it comes. I believe we should win every single game that we play. I have never coached a game at any level with any team without feeling like we should win the game in front of us. That is where we are at with this team.
Any time we don’t come away with two points and a win, I leave disappointed.
Does getting back on home ice for a few games help you get back into your normal routine finally?
Keefe: The routine is something we are excited to get back into. Our game against Pittsburgh was the first time in a while that it felt like a regular game-day routine for us. We were playing afternoon games, and we were overseas.
We liked how we played on home ice before we went out to Sweden. Even if the results weren’t there for us, we were doing a lot of good things. We are looking to carry that forward to home ice. We have some tough games ahead here starting with tomorrow night. We will focus on that.
The guys are excited to spend time in their own beds and play in front of our fans. As we all know, it is one thing to be excited about it. It is another thing to get out and perform. We will be anxiously awaiting puck drop tomorrow.