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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs, who stayed off the ice on Thursday with head coach Sheldon Keefe holding a series of meetings with individual players. 

Sheldon Keefe learned a lot about coaching from watching John Tortorella. 

"The biggest thing that I've taken away is just in how he handled young players, in particular elite players," said Keefe, who played for Tortorella from 2000 to 2003 in Tampa. "I was the same age as Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards and he was a big part of shaping their careers and having success with them.​ Of course, he's very famous for his training camps and getting his teams ready to play. I've tried to model parts of how I run my camps at the junior level and even now to this day here at the NHL level [after him]."

Now, Keefe is getting set to match wit​s with the Columbus Blue Jackets bench boss in his first series as an NHL head coach. 

"One thing with Torts is he's an ultimate competitor," Keefe noted. "I like to believe I'm a competitor at the same time and I think the greatest way to show someone respect is to make sure you're ready to compete. That will probably be about all you'll hear from me in terms of talking about Torts and our past and I'm just going to focus on getting myself and our team ready to compete."

Asked about Keefe earlier this week, Tortorella said he wanted to wait until closer to the start of the series before answering those type of questions. Keefe says the pair have a friendly relationship and Tortorella sent him a congratulatory message after he was promoted to replace Mike Babcock in November. 

"I've been a big fan of his career as my coaching career grew," Keefe said. "I've always been able to watch from a distance and feel like I've had a pretty good sense of his messaging and his methodology."​

After the qualifying round matchups were confirmed, Jackets captain Nick Foligno said he believed Tortorella could give his team an edge. In a best-of-five series, every line change, every motivational pep talk, every time out will take on even more significance. Keefe, who will turn 40 in September, isn't worried about the experience gap between him and the 62-year-old Tortorella. 

"This event in itself is unique, not just for me, but for everybody. So there are some things there where nobody has the advantage," Keefe pointed out. "From my perspective as I've gone from one level to the next [coaching in the playoff is] the same and I am expecting that to be the case here.​"

Keefe estimates that he's taken part in around 35 playoff series during his coaching career and he has a championship on his resume, having guided the Toronto Marlies to a Calder Cup title only a few years ago. 

"The biggest thing is recognizing the emotions that come with the playoffs and, in this event that we’re taking part in, it’s certainly going to be no different," Keefe said. "In fact, it's probably enhanced even more for some of the reasons we've already talked about with family and the bubble and all those things, where you can go from one excellent game and feeling like you're really on your way and you can win the whole thing to maybe you get down and you start to have doubts. That's really what you have to manage with your team."

The media attention is intense in Toronto where Keefe did a lengthy media call on Thursday even though the Leafs didn't even skate. Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets held a full practice, but there were no requests for Tortorella from the local reporters so he didn't do a media session. 

While Tortorella guided the upstart Jackets to the second round last year, the Leafs young core is still looking to win a series. Keefe will need to help them navigate the emotional minefield that is playoff hockey.

"It's just recognizing the key moments when you really have to rally your team and through a playoff run there really are many of them," Keefe said. "You have to identify them and make sure that you approach each one appropriately and that you're making the proper adjustments throughout. But it's my favourite time of the year ... It's the best time of the year and I'm excited for it."

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Auston Matthews only took four minor penalties while scoring 47 goals in 70 games this se​ason. He also tied for second in takeaways (78) and ranked eighth among NHL forwards in total ice time. The 22-year-old was rewarded on Thursday with his first nomination for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. 

"That's kind of just how I've always played the game," Matthews said in a Zoom call hosted by the NHL. "I'm not overly physical or an in-your-face kind of player, but I try to use my body position, use my stick and kind of use little skills to win puck battles and win the puck back. I try to play my game and there's lots of ups and downs and I try not to get too emotional."

As the games got more intense down the stretch, Matthews maintained his production and composure with only one of his penalties coming after Dec. 3. 

"It's a great recognition for him," said Keefe of the nomination. "You think about all the things that go into it. Of course, you look at the penalty minutes and the fact he plays the game with such discipline and keeps himself on the ice as often as possible and available in that sense, but also it's not easy to do his job. He's obviously a major focus for the opposition and he plays a lot of minutes. To keep his head and stay cool and stay committed and focused on the task at hand is a credit to him."

While the Lady Byng celebrates "gentlemanly conduct" ​on the ice, Matthews, who stands 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, made a point of saying he’s looking to mix it up a little more moving forward. 

"I'd like to see myself be a little more physical," he said. "I guess just in general use my body and size a little bit more ... I try to use body position, hand-eye co-ordination to kind of pick and choose my spots when I can anticipate where a guy is going and try to steal it and gain possession back."

The other nominees are St. Louis Blues centre Ryan O'Reilly, who won the award in the 2013-14 season, and Colorado Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon.  

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Now that the Leafs blueline is finally fully healthy, Tyson Barrie has high expectations for the group. 

"It's awesome," he said. "I think we have as good a group as any in the National Hockey League."

Barrie and Justin Holl are the only regular Leafs defenceman to avoid the injury list this year. Morgan Rielly played through pain due to an undisclosed issue early in the year before sustaining a broken foot in January. Jake Muzzin dealt with a broken foot and a broken knuckle. Cody Ceci was sidelined with an ankle sprain. Travis Dermott missed the start of the year after undergoing shoulder surgery. 

Despite staying healthy, Barrie had an up-and-down season with the Leafs. He got off to a nightmare start with his new team registering just seven assists in the opening 23 games. After Keefe replaced Babcock, Barrie was elevated to the top power play unit and found his footing, posting 32 points in 47 games. Still, he didn't seem completely comfortable. The 28-year-old believes his issues mirror those of the team. 

"We've been going through some stats and percentages and we got to be better defensively," he said. "All of our offensive numbers are there and for me it's finding that line of jumping in and trying to create offence and making plays and then also being responsible in my own end and shutting down plays in the neutral zone and then transitioning the puck. I think my personal game fits well with what the team's going through. It's got to be a little more focused on shutting the other teams down and getting into that top tier of teams that limit chances."

Barrie has been skating with Dermott on the third pairing so far at camp. 

"We move the puck well and we both find space to jump in and try to create when we can," he said.​

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The fathers on the Leafs are leaning on each other for support as they prepare to leave their families and enter the NHL Phase 4 bubble on July 26. 

"It's going to be tough," admitted veteran forward Kyle Clifford. "I have three young kids at home, [Jason] Spezza has some young kids, [Jake] Muzzin, JT [John Tavares], so we're all kind of sticking together and making sure we're communicating with each other and trying to be there for each other."

A run to the Conference Finals, scheduled to start Sept. 8 in Edmonton, would mean more than five weeks away from loved ones. 

"We've had lots of family conversations about it," said Spezza, who has four daughters at home. "There's been a lot of talk and the kids have been involved in it. My wife has been really supportive and the kids are supportive. They know dad doesn't have a lot of time left playing and this is really important to me and I'm really lucky to have them feel that way about it. It isn't going to make it easier and there will be some days when you miss your kids, but everybody is making sacrifices right now."

Clifford has added motivation to make it to the final four as his wife's family is from Edmonton and will be camped out there during the playoffs. Families are allowed into the bubble during the Conference Finals. 

"Fortunately my family's going to be out in Edmonton waiting for us in the Conference Finals so I'm looking forward to that," he said. "The goal is to be going out there to see them."

 

The pandemic pause allowed Clifford, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings in a February trade, to find his footing in Toronto and also get more familiar with the Leafs' game plan. 

"It definitely gave me some time to reset and get my family life in order a little bit," the 29-year-old said. "We were a little sporadic with living arrangements and with things like that. So, I took the opportunity to get that aspect straightened out. And then from the hockey standpoint it was great to just to have a little reset and communicate with the coaches throughout the process ... learning the new systems that I didn't really get a chance to get fully accustomed to in the first month there. I'm definitely taking advantage of the opportunity to be ready to go and be on the same page with what the coaches are putting out there for us." 

Clifford, who had a goal and two assists in 16 games after joining the Leafs, has been skating as the fourth line left winger so far at training camp alongside Frederik Gauthier and Spezza.  

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The Leafs will be back on the ice with a pair of practices on Friday at the Ford Performance Centre.