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Maple Leafs' Keefe Unwavering in Approach to This Season: 'I Believe In Who I Am'

Following a disappointing end to last season, a proper training camp could ignite Sheldon Keefe's last best shot at pushing his club to success in the postseason.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe isn't about to dramatically change his approach to coaching following his club's disappointing first-round exit against the Montreal Canadiens in May.

"There's no forgetting and there's learning to move it forward," Keefe said. "We can recite the fact that we did a number of great things last season and we're not here to change the foundation as we laid as a team last year."

The Maple Leafs finished with a 35-14-7 record in the pandemic-truncated 2020-21 season. His team held the lead in the  North Division from early February until the end of the 56-game schedule. But the team squandered a 3-1 series lead in their best-of-seven series against Montreal and suffered an opening-round exit for the fifth consecutive season.

If there is any slack to give the third-year coach going into this season, it's that it will be his first 'normal' year as bench boss... Provided the current trajectory of the pandemic allows for it.

Keefe took over as head coach of Toronto on Nov. 20, 2019 when the Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock following a 9-10-4 start to the season. He coached the team to a 27-15-5 record before the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended the regular season. When play resumed five months later, the team fell to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the deciding game of their opening-round playoff series.

Last season, Keefe had his first training camp with the club as boss, but it was limited to one week and one intrasquad game. In January, Keefe offered up the news that veteran forward Joe Thornton would start the season with star forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

There were no such proclamations this time around. 

With more than three weeks of camp, six pre-season games and Auston Matthews not taking part for presumably most of it due to wrist surgery in August, Keefe will get a full camp for the first time. 'His approach is to group different players when the team skates Thursday morning. Lines won't begin to form until the latter weeks.

"There's nothing set in stone and that's what's most exciting as a coach is you go into camp where you've got positions available."

Matthews, the team's top center, underwent wrist surgery on Aug. 13. He is expected to be ready in time for the start of the regular season on Oct. 13. Until then, he has been skating and the splint on his wrist is expected to come off next week.

There is a glaring vacancy for top roles on the left wing. Forwards Thornton, Zach Hyman, Nick Foligno and Alex Galchenyuk are out. Nitch Ritchtie, Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase are in. 

There's also forward Alex Kerfoot who can play on the left wing and did so at times last season, but primarily slotted in as the team's third-line center. The Leafs signed defensive center David Kampf in July. Should that experiment work out, that might free up Kerfoot in the event other players on the wing aren't panning out.

"In the early stages, I'm looking to provide (an) opportunity to try different things with different players," Keefe said.

Forward Ilya Mikheyev factors somewhere into the team's plans, despite his reported request to be traded during the offseason Leafs GM Kyle Dubas didn't acknowledge the report when asked about it on Wednesday.

"Micky is certainly one of those guys who wants a larger role," Keefe said. "He, like a lot of others will get opportunities through this preseason to do more."

Mikheyev primarily served as a third-line winger last season. He scored seven goals and added 10 assists in 54 regular-season games. He had a brief stint as the second-line winger but never saw action on the first line. He is in the final year of a two-year contract that carries an average annual value of $1.645 million.

Forwards Nikita Gusev and Josh Ho-Sang are on a professional tryout with the Maple Leafs.

Ho-Sang is hoping to prove his worth. Leafs captain John Tavares, a former teammate of his with the Islanders, said the forward has been working out at the team's practice facility for the last six weeks or so.

There is, of course, Nick Robertson, who played six regular-season games with the Leafs last season.

"I have no preconceived notion, particularly on the left wing, who's going to be on the team and where," Dubas said of Robertson. "The path for him is to do as he does and bulldoze his way through if he wants it starting today and tomorrow, go out and grab it."

There were some changes to the Leafs coaching personnel this summer. The club hired Dean Chynoweth, who previously served as an assistant coach with the Carolina Hurricanes. He replaced Dave Hakstol, who departed to become the head coach of the expansion Seattle Kraken franchise. Spencer Carbery also joins the club as an assistant. Although Manny Malhotra remains an assistant, Carbery will take over power play duties this season. Under Malhotra, the power play got off to a hot start but started great but quickly fizzled as the season went along and into the playoffs.

When Leafs management emphatically remained committed to their core-four forward (Matthews, Marner, Tavares and William Nylander) last May, the endorsement extended into Keefe, who enters the final year of a three-year contract. 

Everyone is on the hot seat, including Keefe. But he won't let that discount his approach to the game nor the successes the team had last season.

"I believe in who I am and I also believe in the a lot of the great things we did last season to put ourselves in the position to compete in the playoffs," Keefe said. 

Keefe had some success this past season with getting the Leafs to not crumble when down by a goal or two. While the ending may have been a disaster, his regular season record in the NHL over two seasons is 62-29-12 (.660).

This is Keefe' best and maybe only shot to right the ship and leave his mark on the franchise as it heads into what seemingly feels like a do-or-die season.

"I recognize and accept the pressures and responsibility that comes with this position," Keefe said. "There hasn't been a day where I thought about it (job security), but there hasn't been a day where I don't recognize the responsibility that I have towards our fans and ownership and our management team."

Rielly and extension talks

Morgan Rielly heads into the upcoming season as an unrestricted free agent. The defenseman led the team in average ice time this season at 23:37 and had five goals and 30 assists in 55 games. Given the substantial raises given to defensive leaders on their respective clubs this summer, Rielly is likely to command a lofty raise next year from the $5 million cap hit he currently earns on the Leafs' books.

“I don’t want to discuss it publicly," Rielly said when asked about extension talks. "I totally understand the question, but I’m going to worry about myself this season and the rest will take care of itself.”

Rielly added that the conversations will stay between himself, his agent, JP Barry and Dubas.

"I think you all know how I feel about being a Leaf, but there is a business aspect to it," Rielly said.

Goaltending up for grabs

Incumbent starter Jack Campbell had a breakout season in 2021. With a 17-3-2 record and .921 save percentage, he effectively unseeded Frederik Andersen out of the net in Toronto. In comes Petr Mrazek, signed to a three-year contract with $3.8 million this season.

Mrazek had an injury-plagued 2021 campaign with the Hurricanes, but managed a 6-2-3 record with a .923 save percentage last season.

It appears as though the competition for the net is up in the air. Both Dubas and Keefe referred to the duo as a tandem without actually naming a starter.

Nylander not fully vaccinated yet

Nylander was the last player to address the media on Wednesday and he offered up the news that he isn't fully vaccinated yet, but that he would be before the season starts.

Earlier this month, the NHL announced new COVID-19 protocols that include restrictions for unvaccinated players who are unable to participate in club activities, whether due to a positive case or an inability to travel due to government restrictions.

As far as taking part in skates while waiting for his fully-vaccinated status, Nylander said "there won't be an issue with that".

Two weeks ago, Dubas was a guest on the Bob McCown Podcast. On it, he said he didn't expect the COVID-19 protocols to be an issue for the Leafs this season.

“It’ll have zero effect on our team. Between players and staff, we will be 100% vaccinated,” Dubas said on the podcast. “We’re good to go. [the protocols for unvaccinated players] will have no impact on us.”

Nylander didn't get into any specifics about why he didn't get fully vaccinated sooner.

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