DETROIT — After two full days of practice under new head coach Sheldon Keefe, the Toronto Maple Leafs expect to be a little more organized in their third game with him behind the bench.
But they still feel like they’re just getting started in adapting to his systemic changes.
"I don’t think you’re able to change a system completely over the course of just a couple games," defenceman Morgan Rielly said before Wednesday’s visit to Little Caesars Arena to face the Detroit Red Wings. "I think it takes a little bit longer, but we’ve talked about things that we can improve on.
He’s got a long list of things. That’s always a good thing.
"As players, we have to be focused and motivated and make sure we’re paying attention because there’s lots going on."
The Leafs are trying to implement adjustments that will see them control the puck more and produced some encouraging numbers in their first two games under Keefe, seeing a bump in the amount of time they possessed it (16:41, up from 14:22) while reducing their dump-in percentage from 53.5 to 46.9, according to SportLogiq.
Now, that hardly amounts to a representative sample, but it does reinforce the potential value in Keefe’s vision.
It also helps that the Leafs won games over the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes after losing the last six they played with Mike Babcock behind the bench.
During small-group skills sessions held Monday and Tuesday, the Leafs forwards worked on their cycle play while the defencemen were put through drills designed to get them more comfortable finding the correct outlet pass. In some cases, the new coach is fine with them taking things slow while waiting for a good option rather than rushing and turning the puck over.
"I think the more we play on offence, the more we have the puck, the less D-zone and defence we have to play," said centre Auston Matthews.
Keefe also took the extra practice time early in the week to reinforce some of the concepts he introduced immediately after replacing Babcock last Wednesday.
"We’re looking to really kind of firm up some details on our defensive zone coverage and looking to protect our net better than we have. Then also have a lot more pressure on the puck in different spots, so that’s going to be important for us," he said.
"But then just being more comfortable with — at times when we want to move the puck quickly and get through the neutral zone fast and at times we want to slow it down and maybe use our skills and build some speed.
"Just kind of making those decisions, being on the same page a little bit better."
Keefe also seems inclined to lean more heavily on his big horses. He gave captain John Tavares 22:31 against Colorado on Saturday — the most he’s received in any game as a Leaf — while also finding 20:43 for Matthews.
"I do think that’s the trend you’re going to see with those guys, that we’ll try and get them more involved in different things," said Keefe. "It is very situational depending on what’s happening with the game."
This is all part of the new normal for Toronto.
One of the other stamps Keefe put on the group was a little more subtle. He had the slogan "It’s a privilege, not a right" removed from the dressing room at both the practice rink and Scotiabank Arena.
"I’ve never been big on slogans, frankly," said Keefe. "I have a few ideas bouncing around and I don’t know whether we’ll get to it this season or not. It’s not really on the top of my list right now."