Quick Shifts: How Sheldon Keefe views benching star players

Listen to Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman discuss how the Maple Leafs are able to keep momentum going through 3 periods of play this season and where the confidence comes from in a press conference.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Patrik Laine was forced to sit and watch this week's column.

1. The coaching fraternity runs deep.

There is an underlying empathy between NHL bench maestros. They understand it could be their bold decision that gets criticized next.

Naturally, John Tortorella’s benching of Patrik Laine in his fourth game as a Blue Jacket — after the new superstar in town had pumped three goals in his past two games — got the hockey world talking.

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, who played under Tortorella in Tampa and later incorporated some of his philosophies, had an interesting perspective on the matter.

"Torts is very direct. Very honest,” Keefe said. “If you are going to take away somebody's ice time, knowing Torts, it would’ve been a lot behind the scenes that would’ve led to such a decision. It wouldn't be anything abrupt. He's very purposeful about how he goes about things.”

There were reports that Laine barked something at an assistant. Heated exchanges between coaches, between players, or between coaches and players on a pro bench are not uncommon.

Benching — embarrassing — a star player for an entire period is less so.

“Everything is situational. It’s usually an accumulation of things. You don’t overact to one incident or one different thing. For me, it’s usually the end of a long line of events that have occurred with a lot of communication and discussion. It's not something I resort to all that often,” said Keefe, speaking on how he uses the ultimate disciplinary/motivational tool.

(I immediately flashed back to Keefe and the Leafs’ very public one-game benching of Kasperi Kapanen last season. Keefe said he slept on the decision before making it.)

While poor on- or off-ice behaviour could result in a fringe player sitting, Keefe believes it’s trickier territory with your top-line guys.

“Sometimes an in-game benching, while you're sending a message to a certain player, it can also work against the team and its ability to win that particular game. So, there's a balance there as well,” Keefe said.

Keefe’s defence of Tortorella reminded us of Tortorella vehemently sticking up for Keefe right after Columbus eliminated Toronto from the playoff bubble.

“I just can’t get over people ripping Sheldon Keefe and his staff as far as the job he’s done with the Maple Leaf team. They’ve done a terrific job with that team,” Tortorella said in the summer, unprompted.

“Half the pundits in this city think they know about the game, but they really don’t. It just pisses me off for a fellow coach in this league ... Some of the things that he is criticized for is just beyond belief to me. It just shows that people have no clue what’s going on in this game.”

Columbus has won two in a row. The franchise intends to stuff all the drama in the past. Everyone says they’re moving on. Great.

But if Laine’s contract negotiations get contentious this summer, that footage of him sitting sour on the bench will reappear.

“I’ve been benched lots in my day — and usually from the coaches I get along with the most,” said Toronto’s Jason Spezza, a lifelong student of bench dynamics.

“I think it’s just setting the precedent for teams, showing that there’s a standard you have to play to. Every coach is different in their approach. Especially in the early days, coaches were a lot harder. It’s been happening in hockey, and it’ll probably continue. As teammates, you support the guy, and you expect a response from him. It’s part of the game.”

Benched Monday, Laine responded with an assist and 20-plus minutes of hard work in Thursday’s comeback victory in Chicago.

2. It’s been said before, but the difference between Playoff Sam Bennett and Regular-Season Sam Bennett is stunning. It goes deeper than points.

In four of the Flames’ final five bubble games in their do-or-die series against Dallas, Bennett posted five shots on goal. Only once in the entire 2019-20 regular season did he hit the net five times.

In 2021, Bennett has mustered either one or zero shots on net in six of his 12 outings. He’s a dash-5.

No wonder competitors are hesitant to match Brad Treliving’s asking price. There is still uncertainty if the 24-year-old is truly an everyday top-six forward at the NHL level.

We’re fascinated what he’ll do with this run alongside the hot sticks of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan (and how long that run will last).

Doug Gilmour lifted his Stanley Cup in Calgary. He drafted and developed a young Bennett as GM of the Kingston Frontenacs.

Gilmour was bullish on Bennett when the kid was graduating to the pros.

“This guy — every practice he gets better, every game he gets better. Plus, he’s got a big heart. Every night he’s working his butt off. A never-give-up type of player. Calgary is going to be very happy to have him,” Gilmour told us in the fall of 2014, as Bennett readied to make the jump.

“Guys who play against him would chirp him and get abusive with him. He never stopped. He’d get up, get the puck, figure out who he’s going to pass it to or score a goal. His commitment is unbelievable.”

Somewhere along the line, that commitment between player and franchise has been questioned.

We reached out to Gilmour to get his thoughts on the trade request.

“Sam is a great kid and maybe he needs a new start. Time will tell,” Gilmour texted.

Does Bennett have what it takes to be a regular scoring threat in a top six somewhere, or is he more suited to a checking role in the NHL?

“He tries to do too much because he cares,” Gilmour responded. “I think close to top six elsewhere.”

3. Quote of the Week!

Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov, recovering from COVID-19 symptoms, was asked if he was frightened by the virus. His quick response?

“No, I'm from Russia. You can't scare me.”

4. Ladies and gentlemen, the 2021 All–Healthy Scratch Team. We figure this lineup could actually win a few games:

Sam Bennett–Travis Konecny–Anthony Mantha
James Neal–Colin White–Jake Virtanen
Kyle Clifford–Alex Galchenyuk–Brett Connolly
Jason Spezza–Mikko Koivu–Corey Perry

Vince Dunn–Tony DeAngelo
Travis Dermott–Ethan Bear
Victor Mete–Matt Benning

Frederik Andersen

Less than a month into the season and already a slew of familiar names have been dealt the press-box treatment.

Some are off-season additions that arrived with high hopes. Some are top-line talents who needed a wakeup call from their coach (Mantha, Konecny). Some are stuck on deep rosters. Others are trade bait and/or have been waived. One guy retired after his scratch (Koivu), and another simply needed a rest (Andersen).

A couple other stud players — Keith Yandle and Pierre-Luc Dubois — were on track for a scratch this winter before fate intervened.

“It's always a surprise,” Dunn said of his scratch in St. Louis. “You're never really walking into the rink and thinking that's going to be happening to you. But coaches make decisions, and you have to respect that and put your head down. Work even harder.”

5. Sharks captain Logan Couture is one of several NHLers who has voiced his support to maintain a baseball-style schedule beyond 2021.

Three consecutive games against one team is a bit much. Seven consecutive (see: Coyotes versus Blues) is a lot much.

But there’s no logic against a “let’s play two!” approach.

“Two in a row, especially as the road team, makes a ton of sense. As players, we feel like it gives you more rest. It eliminates some unnecessary travel,” Spezza said.

“If fans like it and the league likes it, I’d be all for it. I’ve been a fan of it. I think the two-game sets creates rivalries too and lets you make adjustments against the other team. So, it adds a great dynamic.”

Mate it happen, NHL.

6. In the endless stream of Zoom’d sports cliches arrive tiny nuggets that give us a miniature window into the dynamics of a team.

During the Maple Leafs’ erratic 2019-20 campaign, Keefe was complimenting Spezza’s ability to communicate with his teammates when he noted: “You know, we don’t have a lot of guys that are overly vocal on the bench and talk a lot.”

In 2021, that has changed for the better. For two reasons: Personnel and maturity.

In bigging up Auston Matthews for MVP this week, Spezza mentioned that Matthews has been speaking up more inside the dressing room. The veteran loves to see it.

“We've had a lot more chatter on our bench from everybody,” Keefe said. “[Wayne] Simmonds and [Zach] Bogosian have added a lot in that regard, and Jumbo [Joe Thornton] when he was in the lineup.

“But I've seen progression from everybody all the way through. Having multiple people that have that level of personality brings it out in others, too, whether it's John [Tavares], Auston, Mitch [Marner], even Will [Nylander]. Guys are stepping up in that regard. Whether it's encouraging one another or pushing each other, it's been very good and an area we needed to improve upon.”

7. Journeyman Troy Grosenick was plucked off waivers by the Los Angeles Kings (from Edmonton) this week and thus has been forced to stay sharp while serving quarantine.

Incredible how he’s using live broadcasts of NHL games to stay sharp, sock-footed in his hotel room:

8. During the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager search, candidate Kevin Weekes gave an interview to Joey Vendetta in which the NHL Network analyst touched on his desire to join a front office and chase the Stanley Cup that eluded him as a goalie.

Weekes, who also reportedly interviewed for the Florida job that went to Bill Zito, maintains he’d love to join the right organization at the right time — “and also to make history” as the league’s first Black GM.

“I do want to continue to make history. I made that as a broadcaster and I’d certainly like to make that in a front office and at some point win a Stanley Cup with a great group of men and women in a franchise,” Weekes said. “That’d be special.”

Would love to see it.

9. In the Before Times, Brian Burke and I often sat beside each other in the Scotiabank Arena pressbox on weeknights to take in Leafs games. (This is because seating plans are organized by outlet, not because he enjoyed my company.)

As you might imagine, Burkie would wish aloud for somebody to throw a hit or question the intelligence of a whistle. But he’d offer up keen insights on how the refs were calling things and which players were dogging it or thriving.

Point is, Burke was involved, engaged. He could’ve easily stayed home and watched on TV, but he loved being in the barn. Almost always he arrived excited, saying how thrilled he was to watch some ordinary mid-November tilt that, ultimately, might be meaningless to the standings.

“Should be a good one.” And he’d lean forward.

Whenever the Leafs honoured a member of the Canadian Forces during a TV timeout, Burke was the first one standing and the last one sitting.

If this Cup winner in his 60s could get juiced up taking an elevator to the nosebleeds to watch the Panthers on a Tuesday, how dare I take the perch for granted.

His contagious passion for the game will be missed at Sportsnet, but no one is surprised he has a sword in his hand again.

Now ... about Kris Letang.

Letang is undoubtedly a core piece of the Penguins. He’ll also be 35 and coming off a $7.25-million cap hit when he hits UFA status. In other words, a depreciating asset.

Letang’s ice time (a whopping 24:43) and underlying numbers are actually up from his career averages this season, but his production isn’t there and Pittsburgh’s goaltending (.865 team save percentage) has been the worst outside of Ottawa.

We’re not saying Letang is the problem, at all. We are saying that moving money out is the path to recouping assets and rebuilding around Sidney Crosby. The Penguins have no cap space and only one 2021 draft pick in rounds one through four.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall during contract talks with Letang and Evgeni Malkin (also UFA 2022) this summer.

10. Statistics, on their own, can mislead or manipulate.

Or: They can tell a whole story in a single sentence. Like this gem from the Sportsnet Stats department.

When the Edmonton Oilers defeated the Ottawa Senators 3-2 Tuesday, it was the first Oilers victory since Nov. 28, 2017 versus Arizona in which neither Connor McDavid nor Leon Draisaitl recorded a point.

That stat tells you all you need to know about how desperately Edmonton depends on its two Hart winners, how dominant McDavid and Draisaitl have been for four years, and why opponents must “only” shut down two guys. (It also tells you a little something about the Coyotes and this year’s edition of the Senators.)

Until Tuesday’s win, the Oilers had gone on a 0-26-2 run when McDavid and Draisaitl were point-free.

11. It’s harsh enough online. Imagine how the frustrations of the fan base would filter into the players if the Vancouver Canucks were playing in a full Rogers Arena.

“I’m definitely aware of it. I know how passionate the fans are, how much they want us to win,” said Elias Pettersson, amidst this six-game losing slump. “We want to win as much as they want us to win.

“There’s no reason to go around negative. We have to stay positive around the locker room.”

Easier said than done, with an invisible guillotine hanging over heads.

Of the NHL’s four worst teams (by points percentage), Vancouver is the only one not embarking on an intentional rebuild.

“I don't think we should be rebuilding at all, and I don't think we are rebuilding. I definitely don't want to go through that again,” captain Bo Horvat said when the Canucks rolled through Toronto.

Horvat is an excellent captain. I think Travis Green is an excellent coach. But there is more glue needed here. Vancouver’s best players are young players. So much roster turnover in a pandemic doesn’t make that easy.

It was interesting to hear Pettersson describe himself as “a lone wolf.” His instinct is to look within for solutions when things aren’t on track. After a horrid start, the 40-Car has 10 points in his past nine games.

"I'm used to working on my own stuff either looking at video or just coming up with new ideas to be better," Pettersson said. "But, of course, there's always coaches there to help me."

P.S. Loved this from Green this week. Class act.

12. Enjoyed this Sabres tribute to Val James, the first black American to play in the NHL:

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