Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs practice
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs practice

After Tuesday’s practice, Sheldon Keefe discussed John Tavares’ scoring slump, the power play slowdown, Ilya Samsonov’s good week, and the importance of lefty-righty alignment on the blue line.

Practice Lines – Jan. 23

If Tyler Bertuzzi isn’t available on Wednesday, how much has Pontus Holmberg’s development on the wing helped you in terms of flexibility?

Keefe: Yeah, I think that is part of what we wanted to come out of Holmberg’s time playing up with Matthews. What does it look like against harder competition and playing with better players?

It was one thing, first of all, to start playing him on the left wing a little bit when he first came up, whether it was on the third or fourth line. At a time when I felt Knies needed a little bit of a reset and a breath, it was a chance for Holmberg to get some reps up there. I thought he did a good job of it. It should give him greater confidence.

Definitely, it’s added flexibility for us.

What is your sense of how the Tavares-Nylander line has been working together in the last stretch?

Keefe: They haven’t been playing to the same level that they were earlier in the season, but I think it has less to do with the line and more with the individuals.

They are in — let’s call it — a cold spell right now, but to me, they are still giving us good minutes and working hard. We were talking about John the other day. To me, the details of his game have been really good. That is what is most important.

It is an amazing thing. The more you stay with that type of process, things start to fall your way. I think Bert has been really forechecking well and creating loose pucks. Willy is going to find pucks and make his plays.

As long as the details of the line continue to be good, they’ll find ways to get things going their way.

What is the point of emphasis on the power play right now?

Keefe: Pace, I would say, and more of an attack mindset. We went through a stretch there where we didn’t have a lot of power plays and didn’t have a lot of practice time at the same time. We haven’t had the reps and the touches. I think the pace is really slowing down, which happens when you start to overthink things.

A practice day today is a chance to get them some extra touches and sort of reset them a little bit. It was a good day in that regard. Hopefully, we get some power plays tomorrow and get some opportunities to go to work.

John Tavares is a veteran player who has been through this before, but do you still try to remind him of the positives and give words of encouragement at a time like this?

Keefe: Like any player, you want to continue to remind them of the good things they are doing. In John’s case, in particular, he has been through enough ups and downs that he recognizes it.

Most importantly, at this point in his career, he has a far greater perspective of what is really important. He needs to help this team win. Of course, producing on offense is part of that, but to me, there is way more to it. If a couple of pucks fall in but his habits are poor, that does not help us win.

That is really the message for not just him but our entire team: Those habits, the details, the work, and the defending all come first. The rest of it falls into place.

Of course, if our power play gets going, it is going to help all of our guys to sort of ease that pressure a little bit offensively. You start to get more confidence. To me, it is no coincidence that the two things are happening at the same time: the power play is cold and the five-on-five play dries up, too.

Ilya Samsonov has put together good starts consecutively. What has he shown in how he is clawing his way back?

Keefe: I commented the other night on his focus, his preparation, and confidence. That is what I have really seen an uptick in particularly since the Detroit game. His practices have been excellent since then. I think he was really hungry for the net last week.

Partly because of Jones’ play and partly by design, we kept him hungry by not playing him all week. We wanted him to continue to stack good days knowing that we were definitely going to need him on the weekend.

He stayed hungry. He kept working. Quite honestly, I was not surprised that he had the type of game that he did the other night. He has very much looked like the Sammy we came to know last season over the last week in practice. I am not surprised he was able to have a performance similar to what he put forth last season.

Will he start on Wednesday?

Keefe: Yes.

What is your sense of Mark Giordano’s game and mindset of late?

Keefe: I think Gio gives us everything that he has. He is battling. To me, he has done a good job.

The other night was back-to-back with a busy schedule, but also, we have been feeling like we could utilize an extra right shot on our defense to help us with our puck movement on the breakout, coming out of the neutral zone, on our regroups, and at the offensive blue line. That is part of the decision-making process, too.

We know what we are going to get from Gio, which is absolute competitiveness and leadership. He will continue to put the work in to make sure he is ready.

How important is handedness on defense? How difficult is it for someone to play their offside, especially in the defensive zone?

Keefe: It is very difficult, in particular, when it comes to moving the puck. I think there is something with defending, checking, stick positioning, pivoting, and such. But to me, it is the puck play that is hard.

With a guy like TJ Brodie, who has spent almost his entire career over there, it is such a credit to him. It is a difficult thing to do consistently. It is hard to get to your forehand. Pressure comes at you quicker. You have to be able to move the puck quickly and efficiently. You have to get it to your forehand, or you have to manage really tough situations on your backhand.

In the offensive zone, sometimes there are some advantages because you get some extra one-timers, but any time the puck is along the boards, it is certainly more challenging. You have to be very good and very smart to pull it off.

For my money, over his career, Brodie has been the best in hockey at it. He has been able to manage it very well. McCabe has done a good job in that regard, too, but to me, there are lots of advantages to having a lefty-righty combination for moving the puck efficiently.

With the home-and-home against Winnipeg, what are you seeing from the Jets this season?

Keefe: They have defended really hard. They are a really good example of what happens when you have a team that defends really hard with elite goaltending and high-end skill at the same time. They have put their defense and goaltending first. They have the skill to be able to pull away and win games.

They have a great mindset as a group that they have found this season. In lots of ways, when we are playing at our best, our identity is pretty similar in that sense. It is a great opportunity for us to go against one of the league’s best.