Keefe shares his theory on the Leafs’ top lines playing big minutes early
TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs, who practiced at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida on Saturday.
Auston Matthews is playing more under Sheldon Keefe, but it's when the new coach is feeding the star centre additional minutes that is helping generate momentum in his game.
"It helps a lot especially early in the game when you're feeling it," Matthews said, "you get the puck, get a couple chances and you kind of get your mojo going and you're just all over the ice. It helps. You want to get out there more and more."
During an interview on TSN 1050's OverDrive program on Friday, Keefe said he's comfortable with his top players logging between seven and eight minutes in the opening period.
"It gives them a chance to really establish themselves in the game," the coach explained, "that's been important to me, get those guys on the ice early and get them feeling it and give them a chance to put our team in a good spot."
Toronto has scored first in 13 of 22 games since Keefe took over for Mike Babcock. Matthews, meanwhile, has seen his average ice time increase from 19:50 per outing to 20:42 since the change behind the bench. His top four ice-time games have all come under Keefe, including a career high 25:41 on Wednesday against the Winnipeg Jets.
Babcock often expressed desire to preserve the energy of top players so they have more to give later in games and later in the season. But Matthews points out that the way the Leafs are currently playing is allowing him to stay fresh.
"I've been playing more than I typically have in the past, but I feel like we're not really forechecking as much," the 22-year-old said, "so we're not really skating up and down the ice quite as much and a lot of times it's more controlled entries so kind of conserving energy in that way. So far I'm playing a little more and I feel great."
Matthews has 17 goals in 22 games under Keefe and is certainly full value for the increased playing time. Toronto's first goal on Wednesday was a sign of the well-rounded game the fourth-year NHLer has brought during this hot stretch. After Toronto lost possession in the offensive zone, Matthews back-checked hard, intercepting a Jack Roslovic pass in the neutral zone and allowing the Leafs to attack in transition.
"He's responded well to having more minutes," Keefe said, "that's come off the fact that he's just working consistently and we haven't seen any dips in his effort or habits so that's been a nice thing."
Matthews and linemate Mitch Marner entered Saturday tied for second in the league in takeaways with 50 each.
"Just trying to take a step in the defensive area of the game," Matthews said. "I think both of us have pretty good hand-eye co-ordination and can try to anticipate where the puck's going and where the play's going and he's a little bit smaller so he's not as physical, but I don't really throw too many hits either, I just try and get the puck most of the time."
"The more they're feeling it offensively then you also get a little more passion towards getting it back quickly," Keefe noted, "because you're feeling it ... you want to get back on offence quick."
The other factor allowing Keefe to ride his top players more is the schedule. Toronto doesn’t play on consecutive nights again until the second week of February. Also, there's only one road game before the all-star break and bye week and it happens to be in sunny Florida where the Leafs have been camped out since Friday afternoon.
“It's nice," said the California-born, Arizona-raised Matthews. "We're over the halfway part of the season so it starts to really get in a grind and we haven’t had too much nice weather so it's nice to get down here a day early, get out and about on the beach, walk around and just get away from it.
Out since Dec. 4 with a leg injury, Andreas Johnsson skated on the fourth line in practice splitting reps with Dmytro Timashov.
"They (told) me that the pain is probably not going to go away for a while," Johnsson revealed, "but it feels good on the ice and we did a correction to the skate and some extra protection so everything's been feeling good out there."
Will Johnsson play tomorrow against the Panthers?
"I don't know," the left winger said with a smile. "Maybe."
Johnsson is officially listed as day-to-day.
"Not sure exactly where that's at," Keefe said. "We're going to talk to the medical staff and see how he is tomorrow."
Winger Trevor Moore also participated in practice, but isn't ready to return while defenceman Jake Muzzin (broken foot) is also on the trip, but did not hit the ice.
The Marlies forfeited last night’s AHL game in Texas after assistant coach Rob Davison suffered a prolonged grand mal seizure in the locker room. The 39-year-old spent the night in hospital before travelling home on Saturday.
"It was tough news yesterday," said Keefe, who served as Marlies coach before being promoted to the Leafs job in November. "It does seem like he's doing well (now). I was able to communicate with his wife last night. Tough circumstances. Happy with how things worked out in terms of how the organization handled that. The players, having to experience that, put them in a tough place and they didn't feel comfortable playing, but the good news is they were able to deal with it and he's doing better today."
Davison will be away from the team indefinitely on medical leave.
Morgan Rielly was featured as part of a clue during an airing of the game show Jeopardy! last night.
"It's pretty cool," said the Leafs defenceman. "I like Jeopardy! I got some texts and it was kind of funny."
The category was, "Skating into the NHL," and the clue was, "With 20, in 2018-19 Morgan Rielly led the NHL in goals by a player at this position where scoring isn't the first job."
The first contestant to buzz in answered incorrectly guessing that Rielly was a goalie.
Which Leaf would do well as a contestant on the trivia game show?
"Probably (Jason) Spezza," said Rielly also naming John Tavares.
Zach Hyman was quick to point out that Harvard product Alexander Kerfoot would likely be the team's ace in the hole in Final Jeopardy!
Lines at Saturday’s practice:
Hyman - Matthews - Marner
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Engvall - Spezza - Kapanen
Timashov / Johnsson - Brooks - Gauthier
Rielly - Barrie
Dermott - Holl
Marincin - Ceci
Power play units at Saturday's practice:
Matthews - Nylander - Marner
Kapanen - Kerfoot - Spezza