Keefe takes responsibility as mistake-prone Leafs struggle with consistency
The Maple Leafs practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s game against the Dallas Stars.
The Leafs have not played to their potential consistently this season and Sheldon Keefe is taking responsibility.
"We've got a good team here," the head coach said. "We've got good players. As a coaching staff, we need to do a better job with them and work with them, and help them and recognize our own role in getting the team to play to its potential. I would say about 50 per cent of the games, we've been really good. That's not enough. That's not enough in the NHL."
The Leafs sit in the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with 58 points in 48 games. Toronto's points percentage is .604, which ranks 11th overall entering Tuesday's action. Last season, they finished at .677, which was fourth overall.
"It is a matter of consistency for us," said Keefe. "It is not about what we are capable of. It is what we can do consistently. Coming off the break now and with the final stretch in the distance here, you got to embrace what's ahead and it's a good time for our guys to really pull together."
The Leafs had their three-game winning streak snapped on Monday in a loss to the New York Islanders. They haven't won more than four games in a row at any point this season.
The issue lately is offence. Auston Matthews is leading the league with 40 goals. William Nylander leads the team with 62 points. Mitch Marner is on pace for a career-high 36 goals. But beyond that trio, Toronto isn't getting much consistent production. And even Nylander has cooled off of late scoring in just one of the last 11 games.
Second-line centre John Tavares has scored on the power play in consecutive games, but has just one even-strength goal in the last 23 outings.
Tyler Bertuzzi is goalless in 15 games and has just one goal in 28 games.
"I'm not superstitious," the second-line winger said. "We had some good looks as a line last night and if we continue to do that eventually one will go in."
"We are not scoring to the same level that we have here in the last while," said Keefe. "A night like last night, there's some moments in the game that really stand out and really hurt us where if we score a little bit more, you are able to address those in meetings and in practice, but you kind of press on. You start talking about how it feels good to get a win coming off of the break. All of a sudden, you don't score on some of your chances, and a couple ringing off the post, and now you focus on other things."
Matthews saw one of his shots hit both posts and the crossbar behind Ilya Sorokin, who made 34 saves on Monday. Marner scored in 4-on-4 play and Tavares scored on the power play, but it wasn't enough as the Leafs fell 3-2 in their first game out of the All-Star break.
"I liked the process in the game," Keefe said. "We out-chanced them pretty significantly. We got opportunities to score and don't take advantage of it and then we make mistakes at critical times, which has been happening far too frequently. That is obviously where we have to clean it up and do a much better job."
One glaring mistake happened at the end of a power play in the second period. Timothy Liljegren, the only Leafs defenceman on the ice, lost track of Islanders forward Kyle MacLean, who exited the box and scooped up the puck before scoring on a breakaway.
"That is peewee stuff," Keefe fumed after the game. "If you play on the power play in the NHL, they should not get behind you coming out of the penalty box."
"I was kind of focusing on the puck," said Liljegren, who was caught standing between the offensive blue line and red line. "The puck was bouncing a little bit and they got the stick on the puck and I just got to be aware he's coming out of the box. That's on me."
There was a lot of blame to go around. Matthews lost a battle with Cal Clutterbuck, who knocked the puck into the neutral zone. Matthews and Nylander were on the ice for the entire power play and looked exhausted.
"There are a number of breakdowns," said Keefe. "There is recognizing where to put the puck late in the power play. There is recognizing where you are at in your shift."
Tavares was asked, in general, when the top unit should change during a power play.
"Once we get around a minute there, a little more north of a minute, it's probably going to be a good time unless you're really hemming things in and creating looks," the captain said. "We got to be aware of that and knowing when to change."
It was actually Keefe who kept the top players on the ice longer on Monday.
"I decided on that particular power play — it was about a minute into it — to keep our top guys out there," the coach noted. "It was the third faceoff or stoppage of play within the first minute, so I thought our guys had some energy to stay out there. All of a sudden, you don't break out, and now you are getting late in your shift. We didn't get in, and we didn't manage it well from there ... There are certainly things there that everybody has to own, including myself."
Matthews, Marner, Nylander and defenceman Morgan Rielly all participated in the All-Star festivities last week.
"The guys played well and fought through any fatigue they may have been experiencing," Keefe said. "Those guys played well and had lots of jump — maybe not as much as others as you could see the break really benefited someone like John [Tavares]. But I also thought those guys had plenty of opportunities to win the game for us. They came through for us on the power play in the third period."
Rielly and Nylander assisted on the Tavares goal. Matthews picked up an assist on the Marner marker.
Keefe leaned on his stars throughout the game. Matthews and Nylander played close to 25 minutes. Marner logged 24 minutes.
"I felt good still," the winger insisted. "The weekend was a lot of fun but it's definitely hectic, especially being here with all the requests and stuff you had to do. It was a hectic weekend for sure, but still felt good out there and probably helps playing in that game Saturday."
The All-Star quartet skated on their own on Sunday and didn't have to participate in the full team skate. On Tuesday, they rejoined the main group for a quick session.
"I didn't see it affect their game yesterday," Keefe said. "Coming in today is probably a lot for them, but I do think it is also important for us to get the team on the same page here. As difficult as it is because different players experienced different things with their break, we have to get the team going together on the same page in terms of their scheduling and being able to practice together."
The Leafs have another game on Wednesday with the Dallas Stars coming to town.
"Quite honestly, it was not the same type of break that you would like them to have, but it is part of the deal, right," Keefe said. "It is an honour to be an All-Star, particularly in our city, and there are a lot of other players in other cities going through the exact same thing."
Including Islanders forward Mathew Barzal, who scored the opening goal on Monday night and played 23 minutes.
"Barzal was playing a lot and, when he was out there, he was in control of things for the most part," Keefe noted. "If it wasn't Matthews against Barzal, the ice was tilted in the wrong direction. We ended up having to lean on our guys a lot as a result."
Toronto's depth has taken a hit due to recent injuries suffered by defensively-sound forwards Jarnkrok and David Kampf. The third line – Domi between Nick Robertson and Gregor – was on the ice when Barzal scored.
Barzal was part of Team Matthews during the All-Star Game.
"He's hanging onto the puck very well," observed Marner. "He's very good at creating himself open space and everyone over there knows to put themselves in good areas and he'll find them, usually."
The break seems to have helped Tavares, who picked up a goal and an assist on Monday. It was his first multi-point game since Dec. 14.
"He got some Florida sun in him," Bertuzzi said with a smile. "He was very good last night. He's our leader and someone we rely on and he shows up in big moments."
Tavares finished with six shots on net, which matched Nylander for the game high.
"I felt good," the 33-year-old said. "Game with the puck was good. Made plays, and just trying to be connected through all three zones and be responsible and counted on in all areas not just offensively. I've liked a lot of things in my game all year. Some nights are better than others in the way you execute, but just keep having a good foundation."
Tavares recently endured a career long nine-game point drought. He snapped that with a power-play goal in the final game before the break.
During the break Tavares and his family went on a vacation in Naples, Florida. He packed his hockey gear.
"I skated twice," Tavares said. "I skated Thursday, Friday. For me, it's a long break. There's been times when I haven't skated and you just find that after four, five days it's really good to get moving and get the feel for the game and feeling the puck and even just physically getting a sweat and getting your heart rate back up. Last night shows how competitive it is and when you take advantage of some of the rest it's really good. But it's important just to build things back up and get ready to play. That's what I need to do to get ready. Everyone's a little bit different but for me that's what I think is best to prepare and make the most of a break like we had."
Liljegren's mistake on Monday was only the latest setback during a tough stretch for the 24-year-old.
"I'm struggling a bit right now," the Swede said. "Trying to grind through it and hopefully find my groove again."
During last month's trip through Western Canada, Keefe revealed that Liljegren is a constant talking point for the coaching staff.
"We need him to skate, move pucks well, get pucks to the net, and defend the rush really well," the coach said before a game in Vancouver on Jan. 20. "I don't think he has done that to the level that we expect or have seen."
There is a mitigating factor. Liljegren sustained a high ankle sprain on Nov. 2 and didn't return until Dec. 16.
"It disrupts momentum," Keefe said. "It throws off rhythm. You have to get back up to speed. It is all part of being a player in the league. He took one step as a young player in terms of establishing himself, and now there is a little bit of adversity."
To his credit, Liljegren refused to use the injury as an excuse.
"I think I played pretty solid coming back from it," he said. "I think the last couple weeks I've been slipping a little bit."
Keefe was quick to point out Liljegren, who led the team's defence with six goals last season, is still making important contributions.
"He is a young guy who has taken big steps in his game over the last year," Keefe said. "Coming into this season, there is an expectation all of a sudden. You are not just a young guy who is kind of finding his way. For us, he is an established NHL player who is looking to take on more. That hasn't gone as well as he would've expected or we would've hoped, but that doesn't mean that he is still not doing good things or isn't capable of good things."
The plan right now is to highlight those good things as Liljegren gets set to play his 173rd career game on Wednesday.
"We will continue to encourage him, work with him, and get more from him," Keefe said. "Even going and watching the game back last night, there are a number of really good things he does for us."
"I think every season players go through a little bit of adversity and that's what I'm doing right now," said Liljegren, who has gone eight games without a point. "I'm trying to grind through it and I'm sure I'll find my level again."
Simon Benoit has passed Liljegren on the depth chart and showed why on Monday night. The burly blueliner made a key block during a penalty kill in the first period, which earned a cheer from the crowd.
"I felt that one, pretty sure," the 25-year-old said with a grin and a grimace. "The PK, you need to block those shots and it kept us in the game."
In the second period, Benoit lined up Barzal for a hit as the Islanders winger slowed down in the offensive zone during another New York power play.
"He has his habits and when you know them you just try to meet halfway," Benoit said.
Bo Horvat, who was playing in his 700th game, didn't care for the play and initiated a fight with the Leafs defenceman.
"It's their best player, right, so when you hit him you got to expect it," Benoit said. "Horvat stepped up for him."
"This is who he is," Islanders coach Patrick Roy told reporters. "He's a leader on this team. Leaders always take care of their teammates. In life, you have a chance. You could be an eagle or duck — he was an eagle there."
Benoit just misses on the Barzal hit pic.twitter.com/6y1YB0y5ac— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) February 6, 2024
Benoit vs. Horvat pic.twitter.com/w3UkEWq0sJ— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) February 6, 2024
Horvat got an extra penalty on the play for unsportsmanlike conduct.
"We got a power play out of it," Benoit noted. "So just trying to make a difference out there."
"It is huge," said Keefe. "To me, it is a game-changing opportunity."
Marner scored on the next shift.
"It was a great effort by Benoit to put our best people in a great spot to take hold of the game," said Keefe.
Benoit leads the Leafs defence in hits per 60 minutes (11.63)
"I don't bring a lot of offence, but I try to do an impact on my defensive side and my physicality and I think so far I've done a good job," he said.
Benoit, who started the season in the minors, feels very much at ease right now in the Leafs lineup.
"I have a simple game so it's hard to miss it, you know," the Quebec native said with a smile.
Kampf skated on his own on Tuesday as he works his way back from an undisclosed injury. He has been ruled out of the two remaining games this week.
Joseph Woll, who has been sidelined with a high ankle sprain since Dec. 7, was on the ice at practice for the first time since sustaining the injury, but did not take part in any drills. He's not expected to be a full participant in practice until the middle of the month.
"He's not anywhere close to us considering him for game action," Keefe stressed before Monday's game.
Lines at Tuesday's practice:
Knies - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Nylander
Gregor - Domi - Robertson
McMann - Holmberg - Reaves
Rielly - Brodie
Benoit - McCabe
Giordano - Liljegren
Lagesson - Timmins