Leafs Ice Chips: Keefe sets tone with a nod to Nash
TORONTO — Ahead of a season that projects to be like no other, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe is working to cultivate a certain attitude around his team – from the bottom of the roster to the top.
“With our reserve players, we've determined we're not going to be going with the ‘taxi squad’ designation anymore. We’re going with the ‘stay ready squad,’ Keefe told reporters on a Zoom call after the Leafs morning skate on Wednesday, hours before they’ll open a pandemic-shortened 56-game season against Montreal.
“We think that speaks to the mindset that we need our guys to have in terms of [staying] ready. And it’s also a reminder for us as a coaching staff that we've got to do our part to keep them ready. Shout-out to [Brooklyn Nets’ head coach] Steve Nash for that, because I think it's just a great mindset to have in particular for a season like this.”
It was 10 months ago that Toronto last played a regular-season contest in its own building, and the lead up to this new campaign has been quick: A week and a half of training camp activities, two intrasquad scrimmages and no exhibition games.
But the long off-season before that gave Keefe a chance to truly take the reins of his club, after stepping in midway through the 2019-20 season to replace Mike Babcock behind the bench.
Keefe used frequent phone calls and emails throughout the summer and fall to keep up with players and remind them of what was expected when hockey did return. Now he’ll finally get to see just how many of his directives took hold.
“[Training camp] was just a chance to share my message and my vision for the team and how we're going to build throughout the season,” he said. “But we've got to focus on the foundation here to start with. Today is a good opportunity for us to display the work that we've done and the mindset that we want to have as a team. The message to our guys this morning was just to continue to build on our structure and our systems, and the habits, the identity and the mindset of our team should be apparent right from the start here.”
Several of the Leafs’ veteran players were setting a tone for Toronto even before the details of this NHL season were revealed, gathering in adherence with league protocols for workouts and on-ice sessions weeks ahead of time.
In particular, Keefe thought Frederik Andersen’s arrival in those early days gave his teammates a real boost.
“I think Fred right away sent a pretty loud message to everybody in our organization about how he's preparing. Just the fact that he came into Toronto as early as he did, earlier than he ever has,” Keefe said. “He got in a good two months of work in our facility with our staff to get himself prepared for this season, and I think that mindset that he had, it has bled right through our team. All of a sudden you're starting to get more and more players that were coming into town early and we feel like we're ahead of the game that way.”
Like every other team, the Leafs have had to adjust to their new normal, which includes regular testing for COVID-19 and strict limitations on what they can do and where they can go in their day-to-day lives. In a strange way, that's helped bond the team even further.
“I think as a group, we've handled it well,” said Morgan Rielly. “I think we're all just looking forward to getting going. There's been enough time off for everyone, enough uncertainty. I think we have a lot of confidence, and we’re just happy to be back and playing hockey.”
In accordance with provincial guidelines, there will be no fans in the stands Wednesday night, and that’s probably how things will remain throughout the entire year. Keefe said he had “a moment” during the morning skate where he looked at the tarp-covered seats and was saddened to know the building would be mostly empty on opening night.
Not only would Toronto faithful not get to welcome newcomers like Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian to the ice, but they won’t be present to see what Keefe hopes will be a new-look Leafs team, one ready to push itself further than before.
“The vibe is really good. The guys are really enjoying coming together the way they have in the work that they've put in over the last week to 10 days to get ready to play real games,” Keefe said. “We've got to be really prepared here, and ready to find a whole other level. We hope because of the work that's been put in that we're ready, but it's a whole other challenge and we're looking forward to see how our players respond and how we can maintain those good vibes we've got around our team.”
Leafs projected lineup vs. Montreal