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Fuming Keefe delivers ‘mindset’ message with rare bench tirade

Sheldon Keefe Sheldon Keefe - The Canadian Press

The Maple Leafs cancelled practice and instead held a skills session at Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s game against the Seattle Kraken

The Leafs had just scored to tie Tuesday's game against the Florida Panthers in the second period when Sheldon Keefe sent his second line onto the ice. The coach didn't like how the ensuing shift played out and let everyone know about it, especially Tyler Bertuzzi

"It's just a mindset of our team in that moment," Keefe explained. "We've been talking lots about recognizing moments and being good with our situational awareness."

The Leafs had control of the puck after a faceoff win, but Bertuzzi gave it away in the offensive zone instead of getting it deep. The Panthers quickly counter attacked. 

"We got the puck in full control and we don't take care of it and we're back on our heels," Keefe said. "That's a team mindset thing. Obviously Bert in that instance, but there's been too many instances of that."

For Keefe, it was a rare outburst directed at a player on the bench. 

"Sometimes you get emotional on the bench and you guys see it," he said. "Oftentimes it's behind closed doors and you don't see it. Regardless, it's an area that we have to get better in. Obviously, I got to do a better job of making them even more aware or holding them accountable if it's not going to be to the standard that's required and that certainly will be the case."

Too many times this season the Leafs have allowed a momentum-swinging goal shortly after scoring one of their own. It happened in the first period on Saturday in Pittsburgh when Jake Guentzel scored a tap-in goal just 28 seconds after Bertuzzi opened the scoring. On Friday in Chicago, Jason Dickinson scored just 49 seconds after Nick Robertson put the Leafs ahead in the first period.  

There's only so much Keefe can do. 

"These things can't come from the coaching staff all the time," he said. "It's the players on the ice. They got to be aware. They got to know their responsibility. They got to know what they're looking to accomplish when the puck comes to them. What do we need to do here? After a goal, whether it's start of periods, end of periods, you want to be on the other team's half of the ice so put the puck into a safe space where that can happen. Sometimes that's with it on your stick and sometimes it's not. So, it's just about making those right decisions. It just so happened it was Bert in that case [Tuesday], but Bert's played very, very well for us here. To me, it's a team mindset thing that we haven't gotten right."

ContentId(1.2042298): 'Situational awareness and mindset': Keefe explains bench outburst


Veteran defenceman Mark Giordano left Tuesday's game after blocking a shot off his hand in the first period. 

"It is still being evaluated to determine the extent of the injury and how much time he will miss," Keefe said. 

The coach grimaced upon hearing the initial prognosis from head athletic therapist Paul Ayotte during Tuesday's game. 

Giordano will not play Thursday against the Seattle Kraken. It will be his first injury absence since being acquired by the Leafs at the 2022 trade deadline. The 40-year-old did sit out some games late last season for load management. 

"We haven't been without him very much since he has been here," said Keefe. 

What will they miss? 

"It is leadership, experience, a guy who brings us everything he has, penalty-killing utility, and all of those kinds of things," Keefe said. 

The Leafs are already playing without defencemen John Klingberg (hip) and Timothy Liljegren (high ankle sprain), who are both on long-term injured reserve. Klingberg is seeing a specialist this week to see if he'll need surgery. Liljegren has started skating again, but isn't expected back soon. 

Giordano, meanwhile, was logging time on the second pair alongside Jake McCabe at the time of the injury. 

"We already have injuries on defence, so we were already asking a lot of him and asking a lot of others, too," said Keefe. "It will be even more so now. It is an opportunity for others to step up on defence and even more reason for our forwards to support our defence which, to me, they haven't done a good enough job of."

ContentId(1.2042297): Giordano out Thursday with hand injury; still being evaluated for timeline


When Toronto sustained a series of injuries on defence last season, the forwards were credited with stepping up to make life easier on the battered blue line. But that's not happening so far this year. Keefe believes some of his snakebitten scorers are cheating for offence. 

"I do see some of that," the coach confirmed. "Again, it comes back to a mindset. It is a challenge. You have some top guys who aren't feeling it and aren't producing at the level they expected of themselves, so that becomes the focus."

Mitch Marner has not scored in eight games, which matches his longest drought since Keefe took over as coach. Auston Matthews has just one power-play goal in the last eight games. After a scorching start, William Nylander has suddenly gone three games without a point. John Tavares has one assist in the last four games. 

"That's what you guys are asking them about every day," Keefe said. "You're not asking them about how their forecheck has been or how they've defended or how competitive they've been, you're asking them why they haven't scored and sometimes it gets in your head. Let's stay focused on the things that matter and the process you put in place. To me that's been the strength and the backbone of our team for the last number of years."


Will the Leafs consider breaking up top-pair defencemen Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie to help fill the void? 

"We haven't talked about that yet," Keefe said "[Assistant coach Mike] Van Ryn has been splitting them up to support some of the others. You are probably going to see a bunch of that, but generally speaking, it is one pairing that we have come to really rely on. We are going to need that to have a group that can settle things down for us."

William Lagesson will draw back in for Thursday's game. Simon Benoit is also in line for more minutes. 

"Those guys have done a good job for us," Keefe said. "They really have. They are tall guys with good reach. They are competitive. They get in the way. Whether it is 5-on-5 or penalty kill, both guys have given us lots of confidence in them. We took Lagesson out last night, but I think he has done a really good job for us. As I said, we will be asking more of those guys now, but they have shown they can do a job for us. They have given us really good minutes and kept the puck out of our net when they were out there for the most part. That is the most you can ask for from them."

"I try to keep my game simple," Benoit said. "I try to be reliable defensively. I think I show I am and from there I just have to gain more confidence and make that step." 

Benoit, who has played seven games this season, leads all Leafs defencemen in hits per 60 minutes. He's second to only Giordano in blocks per 60. 

"I believe in my game," Benoit said. "I believe in myself. If the coach has trust in me I'll do my best to give them what they expect from me and want from me and from there just go day by day. 

Benoit suited up 78 times for the Anaheim Ducks last season, but did not receive a qualifying offer from the team in the summer. He has a quote from Mahatma Gandhi – "Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will" – tattooed on his chest. 

"The story of my life," the undrafted 25-year-old said. "Just never giving up. Like it says, strength doesn't come from your physical strength, it all comes from here (points to head) and if your mind's straight you can do anything. That's what I believe in."

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The Leafs took their league-leading eighth too-many-men on the ice penalty late in Tuesday's game. Keefe didn't agree with the call. 

"It is not too many men," he said. "If you look at it, Nylander is on the ice the entire time. He is eligible to receive a pass. Tavares is coming off the ice. Bertuzzi is eligible to change for him. It is a line change that happens hundreds of times a game. In that case, to me, the official reacts to the situation and to the other team yelling."

The Panthers, who had just seen Jonah Gadjovich assessed a double minor for high sticking, lobbied hard for a call. 

But Keefe also blamed his team for putting itself in a situation where the call could be made. Defenceman Morgan Rielly passed the puck to Nylander, who was near the Leafs bench. 

"We passed the puck to our bench unnecessarily," Keefe noted. "We are trying to make a line change. It creates chaos. Sometimes, officials make the wrong call because it looks like too many men when it is a legal line change happening with the puck arriving. We have been caught on a couple of those that haven't gone our way. If the officials look back on it, they will probably say they should've let that one go. Again, to me, it's situational awareness to keep the puck away from our bench. We don't need to make that play."

ContentId(1.2042295): Keefe didn't like 'too many men' penalty but blames Leafs for creating their own 'chaos'


The Leafs cancelled Wednesday's practice. 

"We had a combination of some guys that needed the day off because they played so much yesterday and then we had other guys who were unable to practice today with some of the injuries and things they are dealing with," Keefe explained. "So our group got quite thin just off of that alone and it would've been sort of a fractured practice so we just felt like a day like this best served the group and we get a full team morning skate tomorrow and be ready to go."

Ten players hit the ice for a skills practice, including top-line winger Matthew Knies. What did he get out of the skills session? 

"Just a lot of puck touches," he said. "Cleaning up our game around the boards, around that area. I think that happened a lot in the game that the puck is on the boards and we just got to get it off the boards, so it was good to get those puck touches and that confidence."

Toronto's top line posted the lowest CorsiFor percentage (27) in Tuesday's game.   

"We need a little bit more O-zone time," Knies said. "We had our chances here and there, but we needed to stick around in the O-zone and just play in their end a little longer."

Keefe shuffled the top six ahead of the playoff rematch with the Panthers. Marner dropped to the second line with Tavares and Bertuzzi while Nylander moved up to skate with Matthews and Knies. 

"We just got to play physical," Knies said. "Our first guy on the forecheck has to do his job well and then just supporting each other out there. We were a little hesitant to support each other. We were kind of distant and spread out too much. We needed to get that second guy in there to support him a little bit better so we can control the puck and make plays in there."

ContentId(1.2042296): Knies looking to create more 'o-zone time' with Nylander and Matthews


Joseph Woll made 38 saves and was named the first star of Tuesday's game. 

"That whole first period he was standing on his head and kept us in the game," Nylander said. "It could've gone bad if he wasn’t standing on his head."

Nylander handed the team's player-of-the-game belt to Woll in the dressing room. 

"It's a big one," Woll told TSN. "Last time I played them, they ended our season in this building. So to be able to come out and get that win was big for us."

Woll and Ilya Samsonov had split the previous six starts. The team felt Woll performed better over the weekend, which is why they gave him the opportunity to face the Panthers. 

"That is sort of the message throughout the team," Keefe said. "If you want to play more, play better."


Shot attempts favoured the Panthers 32-10 in the first period, which led to some harsh words during the intermission. 

"We all knew that we could play better," Nylander said. "We needed to dig deep, show some f—king character. I think that kind of took over in the second period there."

The Leafs were more competitive the rest of the way and forced the game to a shootout. 

It looked like Toronto lost when Evan Rodrigues snuck a puck past Woll in the fifth round of the shootout, but upon review the Panthers forward was deemed to have hit the puck twice on his attempt. 

"It was a bit of a whirlwind," Woll said. "I made it all the way back to the locker room and already had my gloves off."

Woll returned in time to see Noah Gregor score on his first career shootout attempt in the NHL. 

"You go to him in the shootout because you feel like he is having a good night," Keefe explained. "You hope for the best."

"I haven't had a shootout attempt in a while," Gregor said. "I think I had a couple in the American League. Just trying to make a good shot and happy it went in." 

Nick Cousins hit the post on Florida's attempt, which clinched the win for the Leafs. 

The team hopes the unlikely win, which snapped a two-game skid, will provide a spark. 

"When you're in a bit of funk sometimes it's the ugly ones that get you going," said winger Ryan Reaves. "It's not the pretty ones. There was a lot of good yesterday but there was some ugly that got us that win too. I think it's a big confidence booster. We know how good that team is. We know how hard they play."

The Leafs remain stuck on five regulation wins through 20 games. Only the Montreal Canadiens (three) have fewer regulation wins this season. 

Nine of Toronto's 20 games have gone to overtime.  

"It shows a couple of things," said Keefe. "We have been unable to put teams away. Teams have also been unable to put us away. We are right there. 

“With a little bit better execution and fewer mistakes, all of a sudden, we are on the right side of these games. We are right there despite the fact that we haven't put it all together yet. When it comes together, we are going to be on the right side of these things. We will get rolling. We have turned past 20 games now. We have to make these things happen — now more than ever with the injuries we have on defence."


Gregor also scored Toronto's lone goal in regulation. He scooped up a loose puck and used his blazing speed to earn a partial breakaway. 

"I've had a quite a few chances off that left side and trying to cut in and make a good shot," the winger said. "I've looked at some video and been working with some of the skills coaches on different moves I can do and just trying to protect the puck and make a good shot."

Gregor did another skills session with player development staff member Nik Antropov on Wednesday. 

Assistant coach Guy Boucher has been a supportive voice. 

"Just trying to instil in myself that when I get those opportunities to take a second and think or maybe take a quick look," Gregor said. 

Despite playing on the fourth line, Gregor has fired 31 shots on net in 5-on-5 play, which ranks sixth among Leafs forwards. He has shown the ability to beat goalies clean, but only has three goals on the season.  

"Sometimes I might rush a shot where I have a little more time than I think I do," he said. "But it's hard in that moment too. You're going with a lot of speed. Things happen quick out there so you don't always have time to look up and see how much time you have, but it's definitely something I’m working on." 


Attendance at Wednesday's skills practice: 

Forwards: Gregor, Kampf, Knies, McMann, Reaves, Robertson. 

Defence: Benoit, Lagesson, Timmins. 

Goalie: Samsonov