Almost six months ago, still long before our world changed, the Toronto Maple Leafs had just sewn up two of their most impressive wins of the season. Quality performances on the road in Nashville and Dallas prevented the club from falling further out of the postseason picture after losing ground, idly, throughout the week previous while away on a mandated bye interval that happened to flow into All-Star weekend.
Eight full days between games was sufficient time for the players to rest and recharge. But for the coaching staff and hockey operations, the break provided no such luxury.
Only appointed to the head coaching position two months earlier, Sheldon Keefe forewent a mid-winter beach getaway and dove straight into the details in an effort to implement as many fixes to a roster that seemed stuck in transition, and had been severely underperforming through the halfway mark on the season.
Those two wins on the road inside the Central Division were an indication that Keefe’s time in the lab was well spent. But for a rookie coach learning about his team and the individuals that make up an NHL roster, a few days don’t make a summer.
Or for that matter, they don’t make an impromptu four-month hiatus in the middle of a global pandemic.
Keefe seemed to say it all about himself, and the situation he finds himself in after taking the reins from Mike Babcock, 26 days after the interruption of the NHL season. Asked what he’s doing to occupy his time away from the team and arena, and if it includes the quick consumption of either TV shows, movies or books, Keefe said the only thing he’s been “binging on” is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
More than two-and-a-half months later, it doesn’t seem that the coach’s priorities have changed — if anything it seems his focus has only intensified. So if a short window invested in late January can have a positive impact at a micro level, it could mean good things for the Leafs, who will enter Phase 4 and a clash with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the play-in round of the Stanley Cup playoffs with their head coach and his staff having logged countless hours of necessary study.
“This is a whole ‘nother animal,” Keefe said Friday, comparing the work he’s done during the NHL’s pause to the successes borne out of January’s bye. “We have been able to spend months now — not just getting to know our team, but having lots of great meetings as a coaching staff to really come up with what we believe is the best structure and the right system for our team to work, and having a greater clarity on how we can communicate with our players.”
Due to the nature in which Keefe stepped into the position, detailed and comprehensive conversations over tactics and optimization — of which involve the entire hockey operations — were always in the plans. What the pandemic allowed for, and a unique benefit of having a season interrupted, is that these changes, and ideally improvements, can now be drilled down before the conclusion of the season, thus potentially reversing its outcome.
“In the race that is the regular season, it’s relentless. It’s really difficult to really nail down and get to work on the things you need to do. You need more time to do that. So it’s kinda patchwork mid-season,” Keefe said.
“The reality is, whether it was this event here or we were preparing for a new season, we needed to get better as a team. We are fortunate to have this chance to reset ourselves.”
Keefe has leaned heavily on communication in the weeks away from the rink to share his new ideas and expectations, but the reality in these unprecedented times is that the X’s and O’s were only part of the equation.
Fitness, readiness, discipline and desire at the individual level figures to be paramount for teams rushing to become postseason-ready, and to ensure these elements the coaching staff has leaned heavily on a captain still less than a year on the job.
John Tavares has been schooled in the minutiae surrounding the NHL’s return-to-play plan as one of a handful of NHLPA members on the return committee. He’s worked hard to cascade information down to his teammates, and from a very early stage he was pushing for the group to stay ahead of the curve, to see the restart as the incredible opportunity that it’s become.
"He's a big voice within the league and on our team and we're lucky to have him,” Jake Muzzin said Friday. “He's been the sole leader and communicator through everything. Everyone has been in touch with him and he’s kept tabs on everyone."
With influence from Keefe and Tavares, the Leafs have seemed highly prepared for each stage in the return-to-play process, working to create their own advantages in the sprint toward the bubble.
Most important in that was the strong and well-coordinated turnout for the optional workouts that were staggered during the initial reopening of practice facilities in mid-June.
“We had a lot of guys here in Phase 2,” Muzzin said. “The majority of our team was here working together — not in the same group, but as far as being on the same page and doing the same stuff separately. We were all here.”
It’s meant that many Leafs skaters have already spent weeks working out with linemates or defence partners, giving them an immediate handle on chemistry and conditioning, while allowing for a narrower focus on drilling down on the changes Keefe is aiming to implement now in expanded sessions.
“I’ve been really impressed by our execution here to start camp,” Tavares said. “With such a long layoff you never know how that’s going to go, but I think a lot of that has to do with the way the guys bought into Phase 2, and really took it seriously, and really prepared themselves.”
With so much discussion over tweaks to style and functionality, the stop-and-go instruction that might normally be associated with adjusting behaviours is not something we’ve seen play out on the ice surface.
Instead it’s been quite the opposite, with creativity, flow, and full-speed skill development being the hallmarks of the Leafs’ on-ice sessions so far. It seems everything happening inside the Ford Performance Centre is focused around simulating game-like conditions and optimal competition, and Toronto’s coaching staff has gone to great lengths to achieve it — even if inadvertently breaking some league rules in the process.
By far the most creative and purposeful practice session through the first week of training camp was a full 30-minute special teams scrimmage with changes performed on the fly and a full officiating crew on hand to enforce the rules. While the NHL has since come down on the Leafs for bringing extra bodies into the building to oversee proceedings, the club continues to uncover creative means to simulate game action.
There have been high-intensity battle drills and mini games with one, two, and three skaters aside, often in condensed areas of the ice, used as warmups for the staple item found at all training camps: the intrasquad scrimmage.
But even in that, with the talent-rich Team Matthews clashing with the defensively-focused side making up Team Andersen in a five-game series between two rosters carefully curated by the coaching staff, the most basic ideas at Maple Leafs camp seem to circle back to one thing: layering competition into every second spent on the ice.
With the very height of competition just around the corner, these details at training camp could add up to even the slightest of advantages.
And at this time of year, for the first time ever, that could be the difference.
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