Coach Sheldon Keefe sees progress and much to improve from Toronto Maple Leafs at camp

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TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs are almost halfway through training camp for Phase 3 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan, and head coach Sheldon Keefe said there was still a lot to do for his team before the start of the playoff tournament next month.

“We’re still not close to where we need to be,” Keefe told reporters during a Zoom call Saturday at the Ford Performance Center, where the Leafs played their second of five scrums scheduled throughout the camp . “We’re really focused on our practice sessions and you’re just looking for things to transfer into the fray as much as you can. We saw more in the game today than in the first game [on Thursday] that translates. We’re just looking each day to try and build on what we did the day before, and then hopefully that translates into the game.

As Keefe knows all too well, time is running out for Toronto. If the NHL plan continues as a result in Phase 4, the Leafs will be part of a 24-team playoff squad and will face the Columbus Blue Jackets in a best-of-five round robin series that begins August 2. to the one against Montreal on July 28 to prepare.

In an effort to mimic the conditions ahead, Keefe and his staff have designed a five-game scrum in which Toronto will participate during their two-week training camp. But rather than just splitting the roster into two teams with equal talent levels, Keefe went a step further to improve competitiveness.

First he did Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen captains of each team, breaking up close friends who spent the mid-March to early June NHL hiatus in quarantine together at Matthews’ home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Next, Keefe stacked Matthews’ team with all of Toronto’s top six forwards (John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Ilya Mikheyev, William Nylander and Zach Hyman) while ranking the top four Leafs defensemen (Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl) on Team Andersen. In Saturday’s game, Nick Robertson replaced Hyman, who was deemed “unfit to participate” after being shot in the leg on Friday.

The idea is to have Toronto’s best offensive talent grappling with its best defensive players, while the bottom six attackers aim to complicate the execution of the Leafs’ high-end skaters. After Team Matthews’ decisive 6-2 win on Saturday, the scrum series is tied 1-1 overall, and Keefe is hoping that only gets more intense from here.

” The path [the teams] teaming up is good and healthy for us, ”Keefe explained. “I think the lessons should have been learned today. Get them out of their system [and knowing] that you have to be really good and really responsible defensively against those [top] guys or they’ll charge you for it. If you look at the score and the fact that Team Matthews had a lot of attacking today, a lot of good chances, we didn’t like the way they materialized. So it will be a bit of a reflection here for the Andersen team to regroup for tomorrow.

When there’s such a limited trail leading up to the Leafs’ shorter-than-usual opening round with Columbus, the onus is on the guys to enjoy this exhibition simulation now against their own top-level teammates.

“It’s good for the players to have the chance to play against the best players in the league,” said Rielly of the Andersen team. “I think that’s a big part of being teammates with these guys is that you play against them in practice. And I think this is just another good example of those helping our team prepare for the playoffs. Because they are so good, they play so hard and compete, and that makes it difficult for us. We are trying to improve and prepare for a race here. ”

Gaming action has been particularly important to Andersen and will continue to be crucial for the future. Keefe cited Andersen as one of the Leafs’ best players in Friday’s ice session, but struggled to allow six goals in Saturday’s scrum.

Andersen has often said that there is no way to really replicate what live shooters do for a goalie’s timing, and while Saturday’s result was disappointing, it gave Andersen a lot positive points to build on.

“I think I feel really good in training,” said Andersen. “I think the game situations are used to get the timing of everything and read the plays and that’s really what’s missing. I think these games are good for this stuff when you’re trying to see live action and not just have drills that are set up. So it really works to recognize different patterns or situations so that I can react.

Andersen got a kick from the Leafs surprising him and Matthews with news from their team captains, an ad that was accompanied by a hype video.

” It was fun. They obviously knew we were spending a lot of time together in AZ during the break so we weren’t really expecting that, ”he said. “They just threw a video of us [together], where they edited and I think a lot of the guys had a little chuckle at that, so it was fun and I think it’s a good way to bring competitiveness to this training camp.

And that’s exactly what Keefe wanted, his team to be in game mode long before the games started. Given the unique circumstances surrounding everything to do with the NHL’s return to play, the Leafs seem to have had no trouble accepting the urgency and will take every opportunity to improve what they can.

“From the start of training to the end of the game, it’s going to be very intense,” said Mitch Marner. “We try to be tough in everything we do. We know to go back and come back [playoff] series of our first game will not be easy. So I think every time you walk on this ice, we try to take things as seriously as possible and improve each other.



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