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

Head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed Morgan Rielly’s status, the deployment of the defense, and the challenge against the Panthers ahead of Monday’s game against Florida.

Morning Skate Lines – Apr. 1

Morgan Rielly was back on the ice. What is his status?

Keefe: He is day-to-day. Today was his first day on the ice, so he will be day-to-day from here. He is close to 100% now.

You addressed the team after the loss to New Jersey. How do you decide when you want to do that? Is it a feel thing based on the team’s current mindset?

Keefe: I think it is a feel thing. You don’t really know if it is right, but it is a feel. You are going to go off of your gut.

As I told you guys in that situation, I made the decision to go in and talk to the team after the game, which I normally don’t do after games like that or losses in general. I made the decision that I was going to speak pretty openly in the media about how I felt about things. I tend to not say anything to you guys before they’ve heard it from me directly.

In that case, there were some things that we had shared throughout the game and in the intermissions. It is something you have to get right. It is part of the art of being a coach and a leader. You have to pick your spots, know the group, read the room, and all of those kinds of things.

I was happy with how the guys responded last week. It had less to do with me and more to do with them and how they handled the situation in knowing what we needed to do better in those cases.

It has been more difficult with the injuries on the backend, but how important is it for you to identify a single shutdown pairing on defense ahead of the playoffs?

Keefe: I don’t think we are going to be in a situation where we have a shutdown pair. We are going to have six defensemen who are going to be dressed each night and are going to be able to compete and play in different situations against different players. I don’t think we are in a shutdown pair type of situation as a group. It is going to be by-committee both with the D on the ice but also the group of five working together.

I don’t know if we have ever really been there with the shutdown type of pair. Muzzin and Holl kind of played a lot in that situation. Brodie has played a lot of tough competition all the way through his time here. But we are a by-committee group. I don’t expect it to be any different.

How much is the series loss to Florida top of mind for the team going into a matchup like this?

Keefe: It is less about what happened in the spring. We have a lot of different people here. It is more that it is just a really good team. It is a divisional team, a team that plays you hard, and a team that doesn’t give you an inch. The game is very competitive in nature because of the style of play.

It couldn’t be more polar opposite than the types of games or styles of games that we played last week. It is going to be a different feel. We have to be ready for it.

What is the key to generating offense against such a good defensive team?

Keefe: You have to be ready to play through pressure. There is pressure all over the ice — forecheck pressure, gaps, and d-zone pressure is all really tight. You have to be able to contend with that and find your way through it.

This has been the best defensive team in the league. I don’t know where they are at in goals against, but in chances against, time in their zone, and all of those kinds of things, they are at the top of the league.

It is a tall order to get access to their net and to get through your own zone and the neutral zone. That is where we will be challenged the most tonight. The games we played last week — certainly, against New Jersey and Buffalo — were really wide open and back and forth. There was a lot of time with the puck.

This will be more of a playoff type of feel, how they play, the style of play, and what is required to beat them.

Florida going from barely making the playoffs to doing what they did in the playoffs and now the regular season — is it a reminder of how close this league is? Does it maybe take away some of the disappointment from last spring?

Keefe: It is a sign of how competitive the league is. Whether it is the Eastern Conference or Western Conference, when you look at some of the matchups, they’re all really good teams in the playoffs. We are still trying to secure our spot here.

Specific to Florida and the run they went on last year, it is a sign of how the team can make a decision about how they are going to be, what their identity is going to be, and how consistent they are going to be with it. They went from a team that was trying to find itself to going on a run to secure a playoff spot and not looking back, driving it all the way through to the final and now to this season.

If you look at it, it is also a team that won the President’s Trophy previously. A lot of their identity with their core players is the same, but to me, they are doing it entirely differently than what they did before. They used to be so dynamic off the rush, made so many plays, and killed you in transition with the amount of skill they came at you with. They still did a lot of things defensively and played with pace, but now they play entirely different.

They dump the puck in more than any team in the NHL. They used to be all about rush and transition. Now it is all about puck pressure, pace, and wearing you down. It is entirely different than when they won the President’s Trophy but yet still elite in its own way.