Sheldon Keefe is preparing for the unknown. And he’s preparing for it to be really difficult.
The NHL pause has afforded the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs his first real opportunity to step back and survey the landscape around a team he took over mid-season and soon he hopes to put that planning time into action.
A training camp unlike any other could open July 10 if the NHL’s return-to-play plan progresses on schedule and Keefe believes it will be as important for his players to condition their minds as much as their bodies during that three-week preparation period.
“All these things that we’re talking about, they’re real. They’re real challenges,” Keefe said this week during a roundtable discussion with Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice put on by the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
The Leafs coach noted that players will have to be separated from their families during the early stages of the NHL’s planned restart. They’ll be kept in a tightly monitored bubble in their assigned hub city. At the rink, they’ll be asked to maintain some distance from teammates and maybe even wear masks, as they’ve been doing during the voluntary Phase 2 workouts happening now.
Oh, and at the end of next month’s training camp, they’ll likely only get one exhibition game before jumping directly into a best-of-five play-in series with Columbus.
“It’s uncommon,” said Keefe. “It’s uncomfortable for [players]. So we’re talking a lot about the fact that we have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s not going to be the NHL that you’re accustomed to, it’s not going to be the same type of routine and the same type of treatment…
“So all those additional challenges, they’re real, we have to talk about them, we’ve got to understand them and we’ve got to push through that.
“That’s very, very important.”
Maurice and his coaching staff are honing in on a similar theme while preparing for Winnipeg’s return amid the coronavirus pandemic. He recalled an observation from Rod Brind’Amour, one of his former players, that the Stanley Cup final can end quickly because one team gets broken as soon as it falls behind. The grind simply becomes too much.
The message he plans to deliver the Jets at training camp is built around the idea of staying in the fight no matter how tough things get in an unusual atmosphere, starting with their play-in series against Calgary.
“That’s an area that we’ve kind of identified, is ‘How do you build that [emotional] well? How do you build the investment in this that as soon as you get to that threshold of it being too hard that you can push through that threshold? How do you mentally train your team?”’ said Maurice. “Adversity is coming to every team’s doorstep and how they handle that extra challenge in the environment that we’re in is critical.”
Keefe has already mapped out a rough training camp schedule for the Leafs that he’ll refine once the NHL and NHL Players’ Association release the official protocol for Phase 3. Teams are expected to spend about two weeks in their home city starting July 10 before travelling to the hub, where they’ll get another five or six days before the season restarts.
He acknowledged that there’s a tough balance to strike with the workload at camp because overuse injuries could jeopardize a player’s availability for the series with the Blue Jackets, but going too easy could leave the group unprepared to handle playoff intensity.
“It’s such a fine line,” said Keefe. “We’re trying to be as prepared as possible, making sure we make good decisions on our workloads, the length of our practices, what we’re trying to do to try to make sure that we’re peaking at the right time, make sure that we get there healthy and make sure that we can give ourselves every edge that we can.
“We know in playing a team like Columbus that they’re going to be prepared, they’re certainly physically going to be prepared to make it real hard on us.
“So we have to make sure that we match that or exceed that even, if we get a chance.”