We all have our own coping mechanisms during this life of COVID-19-imposed isolation. Some engage in eternal optimism, dreaming about all the things they’ll do when society opens back up. Others treat life like a prison sentence, not looking too far ahead, trying to survive each day, week and month while staying sane.
Sheldon Keefe and the Toronto Maple Leafs might fall into a third category: people trying to live in the present and establish a new version of temporary “normal.” What does that mean for Keefe? It means watching his sons rollerblading outside while he does an interview, which is quite the departure from the crush of cameras and reporters in Scotiabank Arena’s media center. From hockey perspective, he explains, it means treating the NHL shutdown, imposed since March 12, like an NHL off-season.
Within a few weeks, the organization got a strong sense that it was months away from game action again, so that presented a green light to go into summer mode. That’s not the case for GM Kyle Dubas and the front office, as trades are frozen and, while he was able to nab top-scoring KHL defenseman Mikko Lehtonen as a free agent, NHLers have obviously not reached unrestricted free agency yet. From Keefe’s perspective, he and his staff can work through a mini post-mortem of the 2019-20 campaign. Like they would in any summer, they can review game film and evaluate what the Leafs have done right and wrong. The only difference is that, this time, the story isn’t complete. They’re not licking their wounds after another first-round ousting at the hands of the Boston Bruins. They’re evaluating what needs to be tweaked this season to alter the team’s fate once play resumes. The Leafs held a three-point lead over the Florida Panthers for third place in the Atlantic Division as of the pause, meaning the Leafs will have a lot to play for in any scenario, be it finishing the regular season in full, battling through a play-in tournament or jumping right to the post-season – most likely the first of those three options.
“Once you got through that initial week or two where we were unsure about the magnitude of everything, it’s treating this no different than any other off-season in terms of how our staff are reviewing what happened and learning from yourselves, learning from other teams, from other sports, all those types of things,” Keefe said. “So we’ve been doing that. The way we were approaching it is not a typical off-season in the sense we're not going to have as much time. We need to be prepared for whatever comes our way. In terms of return to pace, we've been kind of cramming, if you will, and haven't taken much time off, really. Our staff has worked very hard, and I've been really pleased how every member of our staff has stepped up and continued to do the work, and we've challenged each other to be better versions of ourselves when we return and be happy with the work that we've done thus far."
That’s about as specific as Keefe can get about the content of the cramming sessions, naturally. They’re not much good if he broadcasts the findings to the public and his opponents. But we can guess what they Leafs have been evaluating. No one questions their ability to fill the net at an elite rate, but their 3.17 goals against per game was the second-highest mark among any team sitting in a playoff position as of March 12. Goaltender Frederik Andersen’s ugly season was a big reason for that but not the only reason. While the Leafs’ ranks at 5-on-5 in shot attempts allowed, shots allowed and scoring chances allowed sit in middle of the NHL’s pack, representing major improvements year over year, they still ranked in the top third in high-danger chances allowed per 60 minutes. So while Andersen’s play masked what have been some pretty significant defensive gains, it’s a matter of helping the goalie out by limiting the quality of chances he faces. Among 54 goalies this season with at least 1,000 minutes logged at 5-on-5, Andersen sits 41st in goals saved above average per 60, but 27th in high-danger shots against per 60 and seventh in rush attempts against per 60. So the Leafs haven’t totally hung him out to dry but could stand to tighten things, – not to mention improve a penalty kill sitting at just 77.7 per cent efficiency.
The time away, then, will help the young Leafs study the two-way element of the game. Maybe it’ll give Andersen crucial mental-healing time, and he can get his confidence back. The break also has given Keefe, 39, time to step back and take stock of his first season as an NHL coach, which has produced a 27-15-5 record across 42 games. The biggest step up, in his mind, has been the intensity of the schedule, which involves juggling the games and practices with smothering media coverage and a calendar packed with commitments for players, from charity events to signings and so on. Managing all the noise is something that has required a learning curve.
“I was fully expecting the schedule to be difficult and relentless in nature, in the NHL, how tight-paced it is, how challenging every single opponent is, how tight the standings are, the travel of course, all those things,” Keefe said. “I had a lot of warning in preparation for that. But being in it, and actually having to adjust to it and recognize how little time you have between games, to make adjustments, to clean things up, to keep the players fresh and sharp…the challenge of time in terms of what the schedule presents and then energy (level) from where the players are at because of the demand of the scheduling and the effect it has on them…Being in that is probably the most valuable experience that I've taken away from it.”
Depending on what the NHL’s Return to Play Committee determines in the weeks to come, Keefe could be commanding his troops on the ice as early as June and coaching them in game action by July. He acknowledges that things will be different playing in empty buildings, but that doesn’t spook him. He has experience coaching in those types of environments in Jr. A., he explains, and he thinks a quieter barn could even make it easier for teammates to communicate during games. Most importantly, he has extreme faith in his group to navigate whatever comes next.
“There will be an adjustment period, of course, like anytime there's a change, but I think that the players are competitive enough,” Keefe said. “It would just become the new normal and be hockey.”
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