Keefe, Dubas downplaying importance of first meeting since summer breakup
The Maple Leafs held a team meeting at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday.
Kyle Dubas and Jason Spezza were watching Pittsburgh's scratches skate on Saturday morning when Leafs assistant general manager Brandon Pridham came over to offer a hug and a hello. Toronto's director of team services, Brad Lynn, did the same thing a few minutes later. There were a lot of smiles as the quartet caught up.
On Saturday night, the old friends will become foes for the first time since Dubas and Spezza left the Leafs in a stunning summer break up.
"It will be a little different than facing than facing any other team because that's the only other club I've worked for in the past," Dubas, who now serves as the Penguins president of hockey operations and general manager, told Pittsburgh's SportsNet television station. "It will be my first time seeing a lot of those people, but otherwise we got too much work to do here on a daily basis for me to let my mind wander. It's really about the players and the coaches anyway."
"It feels like any other game," said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. "I don't think you ever coach against a general manager so it's not on my mind at all."
Dubas and Keefe, understandably, want to keep the focus on the big two points at stake. The Leafs and Penguins both blew leads and lost on Friday. Still, it feels like this game carries a little extra meaning. After all, Dubas spent almost a decade in the Leafs organization, including the last five years as general manager.
"I'm sure for him it means something," said Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano, who was acquired via trade and then signed to a contract extension by Dubas. "Any time you play your old team it means a little bit more, especially the first time."
Dubas and Keefe first worked together in 2012 in the Ontario Hockey League.
"Gave me my first break in terms of an opportunity to coach in Sault Ste Marie," Keefe said. "We've both grown a lot working together. Clearly wouldn't be here today without the faith that he put in me. I'd like to think I helped him at the same time a little bit along the way. It was a good relationship. We had to push and challenge one another. Forever grateful for all that he's done, but he's on the other side here now."
Keefe said he's been in touch with Dubas "a fair bit" since he left the Leafs, but most of their conversations are about their kids.
Last spring, Dubas and Keefe guided the Leafs to the franchise's first playoff series win since 2004. But Dubas and Leafs president Brendan Shanahan could not come to terms on a new contract after Toronto lost in the second round, which led to Dubas' dismissal. Spezza, who was a special assistant to Dubas, resigned immediately and soon joined him in Pittsburgh where he serves as assistant general manager.
So, if you believe in a revenge game for a general manager and front office, this would be it.
"I think it would be a disservice for me to be focused on anything other than giving everything I have to the Pittsburgh Penguins," Dubas said in an interview with Penguins play-by-play voice Josh Getzoff. "They are the team and ownership that's believed in me and put me in this position now. We got our own stuff to be worried about."
"I thought Auston, actually, had a really strong game, especially early," said Keefe. "I thought he was really skating and flying through the middle of the ice. I didn't think he had enough support."
Marner has yet to reach his top level this season despite producing 20 points in 18 games.
"Just not executing at the level you'd expect from Mitch," Keefe acknowledged. "At times he's had it. After being challenged after the second period last night, that line - and Mitch in particular - had a better third period, showed some positive signs, but no doubt Mitch hasn't found his groove yet."
The Leafs are only breaking even – 14 goals for, 14 against – with Marner on the ice in 5-on-5 play so far this season, per NaturalStatTrick.com. The Leafs had a 64-39 edge in that situation last season when Marner was nominated for the Selke Trophy.
Marner has failed to hit the scoresheet in four of his past six games.
Toronto's top line is struggling to establish consistent offensive-zone time.
"They're not making plays," Keefe said. "Plays are just dying on their sticks so that's a big part of it. However we're one game removed from them carrying us offensively against Minnesota in Sweden. They score two 5-on-5 goals. They were our best line in that game so I have to be mindful of that and not just overreact to a game such as last night. Though, it certainly has my attention because it's happening more than I'd like and not positive enough. But when challenged before they've responded."
Knies was bumped off the line late in Friday's game. After a three-point debut with Matthews and Marner on Nov. 6, Knies has two goals on eight shots in six games.
"A tough situation for a young guy," Keefe pointed out. "You know, he's trying to learn the league and trying to get the puck to good players so a lot can get in your head. It's really just simplify, work, compete, be physical, get the puck on and off your stick quickly whether that's a quick pass or quick shot, move it really quickly, and then there's the other challenges."
Specifically, playing against the other team's best players every night. That's not easy for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old. Even with William Nylander leading the team in scoring with 27 points, the opposition continues to make stopping the Matthews line the top priority.
"There's times when Willy's really rolling and I go into the game and [say], 'I wonder if the other team is going to match against Willy tonight?'" Keefe said. "No, Willy gets the easier matchup and certainly Will has capitalized on that. But, for a guy like Knies, it makes it even harder for him. He's got to really focus on that, but at the same time there's a tremendous opportunity to play with good players. Just got to really get it rolling. I challenged them after our Detroit game in Sweden and they were really good against Minnesota, so looking for more of the same."
Pittsburgh's top line will present a huge challenge on Saturday. Sidney Crosby leads the league with 20 even-strength points.
"Man, it's pretty impressive," said Giordano of the 36-year-old Penguins captain. "He's off to a great start. I looked yesterday and saw he had 13 goals. We all know the work he puts in and the dedication he has to the game, but just that ability to be one of the best players in the game, if not the best player in the game for this long is something pretty special."
Crosby is tied with Winnipeg's Kyle Connor for the league lead in even-strength goals with 11. Linemate Jake Guentzel is second in the NHL with 19 even-strength points.
The Leafs were whistled for a league leading seventh too many men penalty on Friday.
"I have lost patience," Keefe said curtly. "I have already addressed it."
Why is it an issue?
"I wish I had the answer," said winger Tyler Bertuzzi. "We got to be dialled more in."
The Leafs haven't agreed with all the calls, but there's no doubt that some of the line changes have been way too loose.
"Sprinting to the bench," Giordano said when asked how the team can tighten up. "Knowing when to play pucks or when to make plays. Turning it over at the wrong times comes into play. There's a lot of different reasons why. We have to be aware because we're getting called on it a lot this year. Those are huge details and then just managing pucks and things like that, I think, is big for those kinds of penalties."
After sitting out three straight games as a healthy scratch, fourth-line winger Ryan Reaves scored in his return to the lineup on Friday.
"That was about 10,000 pounds off my shoulder," he told TSN in an intermission interview. "I needed that one for my confidence. It was tough sledding the last couple weeks being scratched and even the weeks before that I just wasn't playing very well, obviously. I had to get a little reset and I feel good now after a couple weeks of good practices."
It was the first time Reaves has been on the ice for a Leafs goal all season.
There was a lot of love for Reaves on the bench after he scored for the first time since March 25, 2023, which also came against the Blackhawks.
"He's the man," said forward Max Domi. "You know what, he's been through some stuff here and he's handled like a true professional and unbelievable teammate, 10 out of 10 on and off the ice, and that's what happens."
Reaves treated the time between games as "a mini training camp" and teammates appreciated his positive attitude.
"I was so fired up for him," said winger Nick Robertson. "It was exactly what he needed. He's just a guy that we love in the locker room. He's been working away and for him to get rewarded like that, it's great."
Despite averaging a team-low seven minutes and 41 seconds of ice time per game, Reaves has been on the ice for 12 goals against. Teammates are quick to point out that the veteran tough guy provides an important presence.
"When you don't have that element on your team or in your lineup, other teams know that and they can take advantage or they play different," Giordano said. "When Reavo's around there's a lot of guys who are a lot quieter on the other side. I think it's really important. Intimidation is still a big factor in our game."
Toronto's third line – Domi between Robertson and Calle Jarnkrok – is back on track after a subpar swing through Stockholm last week.
"The Sweden trip wasn't the best for our line," Jarnkrok, who was a team-worst minus-three during the two games in his home country, admitted. "We came out [on Friday] and played pretty good. A good step forward for our line. We're skating a bit more than we did in those Sweden games. We were just better all around."
Robertson averaged a team low eight minutes and 13 seconds of ice time during the two Global Series Games. Domi only averaged nine minutes and 18 seconds.
Jarnkrok and Robertson both scored on Friday with Domi assisting on both goals.
It was Robertson's third goal and fifth point in seven games since being called up from the Toronto Marlies.
"I'm just being smarter out there," the 22-year-old said. "Obviously I'm not perfect. I got things to work on, but I think just working with my line and being consistent with that line helps a lot. We all fit each other's style of just speed and quickness and good shots."
Domi, who has seven assists in seven games since being moved to the centre position, calls the sharpshooting Robertson the perfect linemate for him.
"Both of us have played off each other pretty well," Domi said. "He's a pure goal scorer and pure shooter and he knows where to go to get open and obviously I like to set guys like that up. He's going to the right areas and we're connecting. There's some things our line can definitely clean up as well and get better at, but there's some good stuff that we'll definitely build."
Keefe was asked if he's sold on this trio being his third line for the foreseeable future.
"I mean, it's early here yet," the coach cautioned. "At times defensively you see some of the challenges with it. They've had to pull some pucks out of our net as they've gone through this process as well."
That said, Keefe likes how the line has made the Leafs more dangerous down the lineup.
"The minutes and the play we've gotten from the third line has really snapped some things into place for us very positively so want to continue with that," he said.
Bertuzzi is the first Leafs player to wear a neck guard this season.
"Actually, it wasn't too uncomfortable, so I'll probably keep wearing it," the 28-year-old said. "This one was pretty comfy. It gets a little hot at times, but I'll take it off on the bench ... I've always wore the cut-proof socks, the wrist guard. I cut my wrist last year so it's always a scary thing. It's important to stay safe and it's another added protection."
Bertuzzi expects more and more NHL players to start wearing neck protection in the wake of the tragic death of Adam Johnson during a game in Britain.
"Eventually more companies will come out with different designs and maybe some customization at some point," Bertuzzi said. "But the one I have is not bad right now and if there's new ones come out I'll look at them."
Keefe refused to reveal any lineup changes while noting the Leafs have some game-time decisions.