Quick Shifts: How Tortorella is preparing for Keefe’s Leafs

Why are teams around the league upset with how Toronto uses its practice facility during the offseason? Find out as Chris Johnston & Shawn McKenzie have all the latest from Leafs training camp.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Only 14 days till puck drop.

1. Way back in November, when Sheldon Keefe secured his promotion and his world changed overnight, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach received a nice text message from the man who’d coached him through two thirds of his own NHL playing career.

At the turn of the century, John Tortorella made it tough for a young Keefe to earn minutes on the Tampa Bay Lightning, an emerging contender. Hard lessons and keen observations left enough of an imprint on Keefe, 39, that he referred to Tortorella as “the foundation” of his coaching methodology after his first NHL victory.

“When I think back on the coaches I played for, I was very fortunate to be a part of the Tampa organization at a time when they were looking to rebuild and find an identity and grow,” Keefe said. “I didn’t get to play on that [2004] Stanley Cup championship team in Tampa, but I was there through the process of that team growing from one year to the next to the next, eventually to the point where it was too good for me to play on.”

In the lead-up to a showdown against his former teacher, Keefe said this week that, aside from cribbing some of Torts’ infamous training camp habits, the greatest aspect he gleaned from the five-time Jack Adams finalist is how Tortorella handled young, elite talent. How he got the best out of Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, players of Keefe’s age. “He was a big part of shaping their careers and having success with them,” Keefe said.

Fitting. The Leafs’ success versus Tortorella’s Blue Jackets will swing much on how Keefe motivates and deploys his young, elite stars in Toronto.

Tortorella — a proponent of doing the dirty work — seemingly rubbed off in Keefe’s approach to the pause. It only took the rookie coach one episode of Tiger King to conclude there were better ways to spend his time, and he returned to binge-watching his own club’s game footage.

“We didn’t really take much time off,” Keefe says. “We were spending enough time with our families, but we had regular meetings with our coaching staff, two to three times a week through Zoom, and everybody had a lot of projects to get done. Just really impressed with how guys stayed focused and stayed hungry to find solutions and find answers and study opponents.”

Those cram sessions focused primarily on Toronto’s defensive woes, and Keefe is ushering in a series of tweaks to the Leafs’ systems in all three zones during camp.

Conversely, the veteran Tortorella took a long breather when the season halted on March 12. He left the video room dark.

“They told us we’re not playing, and so I stopped thinking about it,” Tortorella says. “I kind of went about our business as a family. We have other interests in our family we did.

“Everybody kept calling me: ‘You losing your mind?’ I said, ‘No. I have no control over this. I’m going to enjoy the part of our life that sometimes I miss when we’re playing hockey.’ But now that we’re back in it, when I saw the smoke, I could tell my mind changed right away and started getting a little itchy.”

While Keefe will roll out some fresh tactics, Tortorella isn’t asking his players to treat the Leafs much differently from a strategic standpoint. In fact, Torts suggests he won’t even show his team video of the Leafs and discuss specific opponents until they get across the border. Most of his X’s and O’s will be scribbled between the ears.

“You gotta be really careful. It’s not so much thinking about Toronto,” Tortorella cautions. “It’s going to be how we play. We’re not making a lot of adjustments into our play. We feel we have a system that the guys are comfortable with that gives us a best chance to win hockey games.”

Tortorella believes victory will come from a mindset, a willingness, a commitment to defending the house.

“You will you look at Toronto, they’re filled right through their lines as far as offensive people — very similar as our first-round opponent last year in Tampa. We have got to decide to have the proper mindset and do the dirty work and the mental part of it as far as being above the puck all the time. We talk about it every day,” Tortorella says.

“If we get lazy and cheat a little bit, stay under the puck and hope we get it back in the offensive zone, start trying to score those type of goals, we’re going to be in trouble. Because this team is too good offensively that we’re playing against.

“It’s not a physical skill; it’s a mental skill. And that’s what they bought into against Tampa last year.”

So, we ask Keefe, are you ready for a chess match with Tortorella?

“Yeah, I’m ready,” Keefe replied. “One thing with Torts is, he’s an ultimate competitor. 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 about all you’ll hear from me in terms of talking about Torts and our past.”

2. Some aggressive play-in round predictions, half of them sweeps:

• Maple Leafs over Blue Jackets in five.

• Penguins sweep Canadiens.

• Islanders over Panthers in four.

• Rangers over Hurricanes in four.

• Jets sweep Flames.

• Oilers sweep Blackhawks.

• Canucks over Wild in four.

• Predators sweep Coyotes.

3. Kyle Dubas let his feelings be known on Auston Matthews’ positive COVID-19 test being reported during the pause.

“I feel that it’s a private situation, and Auston did not volunteer any information for public consumption,” Dubas told Donnovan Bennett on Tim and Sid. “And it wasn’t in competition, so he wasn’t missing time or games with us. And I didn’t really feel that it was something that needed to be publicly reported, respectfully.

“I know in different sports, other athletes — and different walks of life, whether it’s actors or musicians — have come forward with their different diagnosis as positive or negative. My feeling is, it’s a personal, private thing, and it wasn’t impacting his ability to perform for our team. And if he wanted it private, it should’ve been left private, as it has for every other NHL player.”

Of the 43 announced positive cases the NHL is aware of, Matthews had remained the only statistic with a face until Edmonton’s Caleb Jones offered up that info to reporters Friday. (Like Matthews, Jones said he’s unsure where he got the virus and that he was asymptomatic.)

While it was important to the players’ union that test results remain anonymous if they were to return this summer, the level of speculation around those “not fit to play” is only about to rise.

It’s one thing for Johnny Gaudreau to skate in a separate group during the first week of camp and watch (squashed) rumours zip around about his level of fitness or the organization’s happiness with the player. It’ll be another thing if a star player is conspicuously absent in the middle of a series.

4. The Maple Leafs’ projected Game 1 starting lines, barring injury or someone (*coughs* Nick Robertson) stealing a job through his performance in the final four intrasquad scrimmages:

Nylander-Matthews-Hyman
Mikheyev-Tavares-Marner
Engvall-Kerfoot-Kapanen
Clifford-Gauthier-Spezza

Muzzin-Holl
Rielly-Ceci
Dermott-Barrie

Andersen
Campbell

Regarding the defence pairings, Keefe says he likes the lefty-righty symmetry. Makes sense considering the aggressive nature of the Blue Jackets’ forecheck. You want the defenders hustling back to make puck retrievals on their comfortable side. Smooth breakouts will be critical.

Keefe also noted that they also had Morgan Rielly training with Travis Dermott to his right during Phase 2 practices and that combination remains an option.

5. Timothy Liljegren, ruled not fit to play at the outset of Phase 3, practiced alone on a separate sheet of ice at the Leafs’ practice facility Friday.

With so little time before do-or-die action and conditioning at a premium, it’s nearly impossible to see how players already on the fringes of a roster can squeak into the starting lineup if they’ve already suffered a setback.

6. Some under-the-radar news from a busy week. Pavel Datsyuk, who was contemplating his future in the game, decided to re-up for another season with Yekaterinburg Automobilist of the KHL, reuniting with former Red Wings assistant coach Bill Peters.

The Magic Man scored just five times in 2019-20, his lowest total as a pro. He turns 42 next week.

Peters will have to find a new captain. Leading scorer and Winnipeg native Nigel Dawes, 35, left Automobilist as a free agent and signed with AK Bars Kazan this week.

7. Understandably, some of the finer points of the CBA have been glossed over in the jubilation that the document exits at all and we are less than two weeks from gorging our eyeballs on hockey TV’s version of a James Bond marathon.

While undoubtedly the flat cap won’t do 2020’s unrestricted free agents any favours — “Whatever free agency looks like, it’s probably not going to be as good as it would have been,” Toronto’s Tyson Barrie acknowledges — the removal of the seven-day courting period should be seen as a win for the players (and their agents) more so than the executives.

Under the 2013-to-2019 setup, if a nudge-wink deal with a desired UFA couldn’t be reached within the window, the GM could methodically make offers to his second or third target without fear of the player having already committing to the competition.

“I’ve had teams offer five years, $20 million, and 10 minutes later say, ‘OK, six years, $28 million’ in the [pre-courting-period] days. Panic, desperation, a little bit of paranoia. These guys would be falling all over each other, one team outbidding another,” prominent player agent Allan Walsh once told me.

The courting period had allowed GMs a breath of sanity. Outside of the elite UFA (see: the John Tavares pitch meetings of 2018), any panic shifted to the players’ side.

“Teams [were] going into July 1 with their deals in hand,” Walsh said of the previous CBA. “The players are pretty much signed by the end of the interview period, and July 1 is pretty much a formality as opposed to a frenzy. And the word frenzy is a great description of what used to happen on July 1.”

Yay. Frenzy should be what we witness on Oct. 9 (or seven days after the Stanley Cup is hoisted).

8. Marco Rossi is the prospect I’m predicting will go higher in hindsight artists’ 2020 redrafts than the actual 2020 NHL Draft.

Back when the league was angling for a June draft, the 18-year-old Austrian announced he’d play professionally in 2020-21. If the NHL wouldn’t have him, he’d suit up in Europe. No more juniors.

Well, in light of the draft getting postponed until fall, Rossi is playing the waiting game and won’t be signing a potential contract with the Swiss League’s Zurich Lions.

“The risk of injury is too high,” Michael Rossi, Marco’s father, told the Vorarlberger Nachrichten. “For us, it is a matter of waiting.”

That said, Rossi has been invited to start practising with the Lions, Matthews’ alma mater, beginning next month.

9. Hockey types get ripped for trotting out clichés, but the opening of camp gave us some nice one-liners:

“We’re going to embrace the suck and dance in the rain.” — GM Julien BriseBois, on the Lightning mental approach to playoffs in a pandemic.

“I would like to thank all the GMs for not choosing me in the draft because it allowed me to choose the team where I wanted to play, that played my style of hockey and allowed me to be successful to begin with.” — Ted Lindsay Award finalist Artemi Panarin, dropping the mic.

“I’m going to come home with the Cup.” — Nick Foligno, to his children.

“We plan on being in there for a while.” — Travis Dermott, on why he’s bringing his guitar and a gaming system into the bubble.

“Sometimes you think it’s your paperboy walking down the hall.” — Travis Green, on Quinn Hughes.

“I really don’t give a s— quite honestly.” —John Tortorella, on the possibility of mics picking up profanity in empty rinks.

10. We have been reminded of the power of the almighty dollar.

Seven years ago, Washington NFL club owner Dan Snyder told USA Today he would “NEVER” change the team’s offensive nickname: “You can use caps.” Look how quickly the tune changed after influential sponsors like FedEx and Nike threatened to yank their support.

Here’s hoping this is a wake-up call to responsible leaders of other wealthy corporations that they can create positive change by choosing with whom to align their logo.

11. For hockey nerds, it’s fascinating seeing the tweaks coaches have been making during what is anything but a typical training camp. With just one exhibition game on deck, mimicking the expected playoff atmosphere has become a priority for some.

Expecting some NBC East Coast matinee puck drops at 4 p.m., Jack Adams finalist Bruce Cassidy has been holding practice first thing in the morning and is looking at some 4 p.m. scrimmages.

The Canucks invited media to observe from the upper bowl Thursday night as they followed up a 10:30 morning skate with a 7 p.m. instrasquad game to get the players and coaches accustomed to competing in the echoes.

And the Maple Leafs are waging an intrasquad best-of-five series — complete with goal horns and MVP ballots — over the course of camp, pitting their shutdown defenders and No. 1 goalie against their top six forwards. (No more refs, though.)

12. Paul Hendrick, one of the classiest hockey guys to grip a microphone, didn’t know me from dirt. Rub scrum shoulders with a man long enough, however, and you get to talking. About Leafs and hockey, of course. Which hotels are good and which restaurants are close. But family, too.

I can’t count the number of times he’d mutter an interesting six-degrees-of-separation fact about two players or suggest a telling stat that might be worth digging into. Sometimes, post-scrum, he’d tap you on the arm with his omnipresent Manilla folder, all Sharpied up with questions and notes he wanted to use, and say, “Good question.”

It felt like someone else opening a door for you.

What’s special is that my little story is not special at all. Everyone who knows Henny improves in his presence.

The last few seasons, my press-box seat at home games has been immediately to the left of Paul’s, blessing me with front-row access to all the dad puns and strawberry Twizzlers a guy can handle. He’d poke fun at my inability to resist the first-intermission ice cream bars and my bottomless cup of coffee. Reporters observe.

As the games unfolded, we’d discuss smart plays and brutal mistakes. Who was on that night? We’d help each other out if one of us had his nose down in a screen and missed a significant injury or line juggle. (It was also nice having Henny as a buffer in case Bob McGill, to Henny’s right, got angry. McGill has 1,766 career PIMs, surely a stat Hendrick knows by heart.)

Then after the horn, all the reporters would hustle down to the dressing room and listen to Henny pose the first question. Leaders bat leadoff.

Sad at the news Paul was leaving the press box, I sent him a note.

“Good days moving forward can’t be taken for granted,” he replied, forever choosing the positive.

Godspeed, Henny. You’ll be missed.

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