Keefe takes responsibility as mistake-prone Leafs struggle with consistency
The Maple Leafs practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s game against the Dallas Stars.
The Leafs have not played to their potential consistently this season and Sheldon Keefe is taking responsibility.
“We’ve got a good team here,” the head coach said. “We’ve got good players. As a coaching staff, we need to do a better job with them and work with them, and help them and recognize our own role in getting the team to play to its potential. I would say about 50 per cent of the games, we’ve been really good. That’s not enough. That’s not enough in the NHL.”
The Leafs sit in the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with 58 points in 48 games. Toronto’s points percentage is .604, which ranks 11th overall entering Tuesday’s action. Last season, they finished at .677, which was fourth overall.
“It is a matter of consistency for us,” said Keefe. “It is not about what we are capable of. It is what we can do consistently. Coming off the break now and with the final stretch in the distance here, you got to embrace what’s ahead and it’s a good time for our guys to really pull together.”
The Leafs had their three-game winning streak snapped on Monday in a loss to the New York Islanders. They haven’t won more than four games in a row at any point this season.
The issue lately is offence. Auston Matthews is leading the league with 40 goals. William Nylander leads the team with 62 points. Mitch Marner is on pace for a career-high 36 goals. But beyond that trio, Toronto isn’t getting much consistent production. And even Nylander has cooled off of late scoring in just one of the last 11 games.
Second-line centre John Tavares has scored on the power play in consecutive games, but has just one even-strength goal in the last 23 outings.
Tyler Bertuzzi is goalless in 15 games and has just one goal in 28 games.
“I’m not superstitious,” the second-line winger said. “We had some good looks as a line last night and if we continue to do that eventually one will go in.”
Top-line left winger Matthew Knies, a rookie, is goalless in 16 games. Third-line centre Max Domi has one goal in 18 games and just four overall on the season.
Calle Jarnkrok, who is fifth on the team with 10 goals, is currently sidelined with a broken knuckle. Noah Gregor, who has gone 19 games without a goal, has moved up to the third line in his absence.
“We are not scoring to the same level that we have here in the last while,” said Keefe. “A night like last night, there’s some moments in the game that really stand out and really hurt us where if we score a little bit more, you are able to address those in meetings and in practice, but you kind of press on.
You start talking about how it feels good to get a win coming off of the break. All of a sudden, you don’t score on some of your chances, and a couple ringing off the post, and now you focus on other things.”
Matthews saw one of his shots hit both posts and the crossbar behind Ilya Sorokin, who made 34 saves on Monday. Marner scored in 4-on-4 play and Tavares scored on the power play, but it wasn’t enough as the Leafs fell 3-2 in their first game out of the All-Star break.
“I liked the process in the game,” Keefe said.
“We out-chanced them pretty significantly. We got opportunities to score and don’t take advantage of it and then we make mistakes at critical times, which has been happening far too frequently. That is obviously where we have to clean it up and do a much better job.”
One glaring mistake happened at the end of a power play in the second period. Timothy Liljegren, the only Leafs defenceman on the ice, lost track of Islanders forward Kyle MacLean, who exited the box and scooped up the puck before scoring on a breakaway.
“That is peewee stuff,” Keefe fumed after the game. “If you play on the power play in the NHL, they should not get behind you coming out of the penalty box.”
“I was kind of focusing on the puck,” said Liljegren, who was caught standing between the offensive blue line and red line. “The puck was bouncing a little bit and they got the stick on the puck and I just got to be aware he’s coming out of the box. That’s on me.”
There was a lot of blame to go around. Matthews lost a battle with Cal Clutterbuck, who knocked the puck into the neutral zone. Matthews and Nylander were on the ice for the entire power play and looked exhausted.
“There are a number of breakdowns,” said Keefe. “There is recognizing where to put the puck late in the power play. There is recognizing where you are at in your shift.”
Tavares was asked, in general, when the top unit should change during a power play.
“Once we get around a minute there, a little more north of a minute, it’s probably going to be a good time unless you’re really hemming things in and creating looks,” the captain said. “We got to be aware of that and knowing when to change.”
It was actually Keefe who kept the top players on the ice longer on Monday.
“I decided on that particular power play — it was about a minute into it — to keep our top guys out there,” the coach noted. “It was the third faceoff or stoppage of play within the first minute, so I thought our guys had some energy to stay out there.
All of a sudden, you don’t break out, and now you are getting late in your shift. We didn’t get in, and we didn’t manage it well from there … There are certainly things there that everybody has to own, including myself.”