TORONTO — Where once a Sheldon Keefe practice was known for its accompanying music or a heavy focus on skills work, this Toronto Maple Leafs training camp has started off decidedly more old school.
It’s officially bag skate SZN inside Ford Performance Centre.
“Yesterday we started with about 20 minutes without pucks and today we finished that way,” said Jason Spezza, a veteran of a few different NHL coaching styles over the years.
Players were warned well in advance that they’d be greeted by a heightened focus on physicality and fitness here. They haven’t so much as been put through a lower-paced specialty teams drill yet and shouldn’t expect to see one during Wednesday’s skate, either.
While we are basing these opinions on what we’re hearing rather than seeing — the Leafs are one of seven NHL teams that aren’t currently granting reporters access to practices because of local health restrictions — Keefe’s fresh approach has emerged as one of the big storylines in the early days of camp.
No more Mr. Nice Guy.
The reason for the change is among the five most interesting things we’ve learned while monitoring Leafs camp from the parking lot:
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 6, 2021
1. What’s gotten into Keefe?
The answer is nothing. Not really.
What’s changed mostly is the circumstances, not the man himself. Keefe says he’s always been fond of a demanding training camp, all the way back to when he was coaching the Pembroke Lumber Kings to five straight Central Canada Hockey League titles.
There was no opportunity to come in hot when he replaced Mike Babcock behind the Leafs bench in November 2019 because the team was skidding along at 9-10-4. His first time on the ice as head coach was for a morning skate held hours before a game in Arizona.
Hence the Kumbaya touch, which was a notable departure from how Babcock ran the show. Keefe’s immediate goal was restoring energy and morale, and the training camp held before the playoff bubble this summer included some further guardrails because it was so focused on the upcoming series with Columbus.
This, finally, is an opportunity to put his true stamp on the program. And he’s keeping the friendly 3-on-2 line rushes and puck play to a minimum.
“I always knew that we needed to make changes with our standards and our habits,” said Keefe. “It was something we always talked about behind the scenes that we needed to sort of readjust things here, and it was going to take a reset and a training camp to do that. We went from sort of trying to patch holes, I guess you could say, to now really working towards setting a proper foundation and building from there.”
No wonder he’s so enthused by the response from the group. Spezza was smiling on a Zoom call while discussing the renewed focus on conditioning, saying “it’s fun.”
Zach Bogosian, who signed in Toronto fresh off his Stanley Cup win with Tampa, endorsed the approach as well: “A lot of drills are focused on compete level and I think to be an elite team in this league that’s got to be No. 1 every single night.”
2. The new matchup/checking line
While we all got swept up by the revelation that 41-year-old Joe Thornton would start as a top-line left-winger with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — colleague Luke Fox had a good piece on that trio here — the more interesting decision came deeper down the depth chart.
Keefe is an even-keeled sort by nature but copped to being “excited” about the potential for a new matchup line consisting of Ilya Mikheyev, Alexander Kerfoot and Zach Hyman.
While all of this is subject to change pending Kerfoot’s day-to-day status after leaving Tuesday’s practice with an injury, that group actually appeared to be the most firmly set in stone in the coach’s mind.
He even mentioned that he wanted to get a “long look” at them together. In Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Hyman, Keefe sees three players that are “relentless on the puck, that skate really well and have good defensive habits” — extremely high praise in coach speak.
They are trusted tone-setters who could become a safety blanket for an unusual regular season that will see Toronto face six opponents who happen to have some of the most dangerous individual talents in the world, from Connor McDavid to Leon Draisaitl to Elias Pettersson to Johnny Gaudreau to Patrik Laine to Mark Scheifele and on down the line.
It stands to reason that Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Hyman could be deployed in defensive situations against opposing stars, taking at least some of the heavy lifting from Matthews and John Tavares in Toronto’s top six.
That appears to be the initial plan, anyways. Pending good health.
3. The new guys
Even though this is a short training camp, it won’t be a crash course in team-building.
A unique off-season has made it less necessary, with most of the Leafs having already been skating at the practice rink together for several weeks.
Alexander Barabanov came over from Russia in October while Mikko Lehtonen arrived from his stint with KHL Jokerit in November. They didn’t require name tags on the first day. Spezza feels like he already knows Lehtonen.
“He came in early, which is always a great sign when you have players coming from Europe,” said Spezza.
Even the better-known NHL veterans made it a priority to get into town. T.J. Brodie and Wayne Simmonds are locals, while Bogosian arrived a month ago and Jimmy Vesey moved two months back after having trouble adjusting to a new environment in Buffalo last season and enduring a difficult tenure there.
“What set the tone for my year in Buffalo was not getting off to a good start,” said Vesey. “I’ve come here early, I’ve put in the work to kind of try to eliminate as much of the adjustment period as possible. … You know it’s been a lot of time off for me, I haven’t played a hockey game since March. I’ve come in here with a hungry mindset and I’m just going to try to keep that up.”
The only late arrival was Thornton, whose stint with HC Davos in the Swiss league stretched into December. And there aren’t too many players anywhere who don’t already feel like they know Jumbo.
4. Blue-line battles
It’s easy to make too much of the fringes of a depth chart in training camp, especially with all of the unknowns about injuries (and potentially COVID) to come. Playing time tends to take care of itself over time.
But it was notable that Travis Dermott found himself in healthy scratch territory on the fourth pairing with Rasmus Sandin here, especially after dressing for all 56 games he was healthy for last season. You could interpret that as a step back at a time the 24-year-old is expected to be progressing in his career.
Keefe elected to unite newcomers Lehtonen and Bogosian ahead of him on the third pair and is asking for more consistency from Dermott’s game. He also expects him to compete to regain playing time.
“I think he’s as good a player as we have in the defensive zone with closing and puck pressure and his gap control and going back for pucks,” Keefe said of Dermott. “Those are really good, but we need to make sure that that’s consistent and that his play with the puck and play in other areas of the ice remains consistent.”
The Lehtonen-Bogosian pair hardly seems like a sure thing. Lehtonen turns 27 later this month and is an offensively-minded skater who hasn’t yet played a NHL game, while Bogosian is a rugged penalty-killer and stay-at-home type.
“I think he can jump into the rush. Obviously he has that offensive side of things,” Bogosian said of Lehtonen. “I’ll be there to play well defensively and move the puck up the ice to whether it’s him or we have a great group of forwards. Having a good first pass on this team goes a long way.”
Let’s allow this one to breathe a bit before reaching any conclusions.
5. The world’s most expensive power play is no more… sort of
When the Leafs do get around to working on specialty teams later this week, it sounds like they’ll opt for balance over brute offensive force.
Last year’s top power-play unit featured forwards Matthews, Tavares, Marner and William Nylander skating with either Morgan Rielly or the departed Tyson Barrie, but they’ll be split up to start the 2020-21 campaign.
Keefe hinted that Thornton and Simmonds are both candidates for the revamped PP1 — presumably with Matthews, Marner and Rielly — which would leave Tavares, Nylander, Vesey, Spezza and Lehtonen as a possible PP2.
(These groupings are only projections. We’ll get a better sense of what Keefe is thinking in a couple days).
That setup would see less reliance on only one unit to score, which is an understandable approach after watching the PP success dry up as last year went along. Toronto connected on just 2-of-13 opportunities during its play-in series with Columbus in August.
“We’re going to establish two units from the start and look to build some chemistry there,” said Keefe. There’s always the option to revert back to top-heavy setup if need be.
“I think we feel confident with having the four forwards that we had last year playing together,” he added. “We feel comfortable with that group and we feel we can go to it at any time … but we wanted to work at establishing two units here with the increased depth that we have now.”