Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was not mixing words about his team’s current state. From how in shape his players are, to how they were performing before the NHL stopped the season, Keefe has a lot of work to do.
“To say we were happy or satisfied with the way we were playing and where we were at before the pause is just not the case,” Keefe told reporters via a Zoom call after practice on Tuesday.
While many people were binge-watching Tiger King during the pandemic, Keefe was binging on Leafs’ video. It seems his version of Carole Baskin is the Leafs’ defensive play. “Our message through this camp is it’s not just on the defence, our forwards have got to do more work. We have to be a five-man unit how we defend in each zone and a lot of that work falls on the forwards, that’s where we need to get a lot better.”
Not All of the Leafs are in Shape
Like the Tiger King, Joe Exotic, Keefe has more than one problem, “the biggest thing is just that players are at really different stages of where they are at with their condition.” The coach says the players who were in Toronto during phase two spent a lot of time on conditioning. Not all the Leafs who joined the camp for phase three are at the same level.
This adds another level of difficulty as the team can’t afford an injury. but Keefe says he won’t be slowing things down for anyone, “we can’t afford to bring the top down if you will where the bottom has got to come up. The guys who haven’t been able to skate as much they are going to have to fight through it and have to be intelligent about it but those guys have to really work and get themselves up to speed quickly we don’t have the time to wait for it we just got to make them push through.”
Keefe is Making it Difficult
Although this camp is in July, it certainly isn’t one of those fun summer camps, “we’re challenging our players to challenge each other,” says Keefe. The coach says every repetition has to be as close to game-perfect as possible, “the whole group has to get better with our practice habits. We’ve got to push each other to get better in every area of the game, particularly on the defensive side of the puck, and that starts in practice.”
The Leafs were in special teams, playing 5-on-4 for large portions of practice on Day 2. Keefe plans scrimmages to be two to three lines. It sounds really tough, and that’s the point, says Keefe. “Our hope is by the time we play the real games it feels easier than anything we have gone through this camp, so the goal was to make it difficult.
Exhibition Game Against Montreal
The Leafs will have their only exhibition game on July 28 against the Montreal Canadiens. At the time of the interview, Keefe was not aware of who they’d be playing or even when. According to the coach it won’t make much difference, “I’m not so sure that’s going to make much of an impact given what’s at stake, you know right around the corner with a play-off series and risk of injury and those types of things and teams not wanting to give away too much about any changes they might have made.”
The head coach says the most significant benefit of playing an exhibition game will be what happens off the ice. Like the playoffs, the game will not have fans, and other than staff and players, it will be an empty building – something we will all get used to when we start binging on hockey in August.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.