As the Toronto Marlies held their exit meetings, head coach Sheldon Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas had a lot to say about the team’s players, their development, and what’s next. Below is a transcript of their interviews, condensed for clarity.
On Sheldon Keefe’s growth:
It was certainly a very challenging one for Sheldon and his ability for him to transform himself, a lot of people have trouble adapting, I thought Sheldon this year, it was a group of players that needed a coach to be exceptionally hard on them and at this level that can go a number of different ways. In some cases the players can grow really tired of it but it was a group that needed it. We were able to climb from last place in January to contend for the division and those are the moments that if you don’t like it, you can pack it in. He had to change his usual style to get the most out of this group and he did that with success.
On end-of-season meetings and the importance of honesty:
You get into these meetings and you think it’s going to be the last time you see someone and it’s like when you’re dropping them off at the airport. The players want to know some of the things they need to work on. So what we’ve challenged our staff is to give them precisely, in a plan, here’s where you’re falling a bit short. Here’s what you need to work on. So maybe the meetings aren’t rosy and everyone doesn’t walk out as in love as when they started but we’re here for the players. It is hard. I don't think anyone wants anybody to be upset with anyone. They appreciate that you’re willing to step up and tell them “here’s why you didn’t play a lot, here’s why you’re not with the Leafs.”
The variety in the players who have gone up helps to serve the notion that nobody really is given preferential treatment (pointing to Brown, Soshnikov, Hyman). I think that only helps to reinforce what we’re doing here. There’s going to be a reward for you.
On how to game-plan for the Marlies without knowing who will graduate:
You learn to fly by the seat of your pants and just ride the wave man, ride it well if you can. Here, the desire is that we’re developing everybody to the best of their abilities but also that hockey doesn’t end at the end of April and we’re going to May and June. You face a stark divergence in priorities because you’ve got people who just want the young players to play a lot and you’ve got older players who are scratching and clawing to extend their careers and they want to win so there’s value in that. You just have to walk that line and it is challenging but it’s a great experience. In terms of game-planning for the roster, we just try to make the most of what we’re given at the start of the season and work it – you all see the number of transactions we go through.
On the 17th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft:
What you learn is there’s a lot more work that has to go in when you’re picking 17th. There’s a lot more work that goes in to just the number of players who could be available for you. Any, what I would call them separating factors – whether it’s a combine performance or what you learn about them as people – all that can end up separating players when you pick that low. You have 17 or 18 people and you don’t know what your board looks like compared to other teams. Everything is important, even though we’re picking later, to make good picks.
On the Marlies players who grew the most this season:
To me, from beginning to end, a lot of guys took strides. On defence, Travis Dermott took big, big steps in every regard -- his commitment to the off-ice program dating back to last year, his ability to bounce back from injury. He had a fairly significant injury and really just established himself as really one of the best defence prospects in the league and it was exciting to see.
Up front, one of the players who really flies under the radar and had a great season from beginning to end if you’re measuring it that was Andreas Johnsson. He had a real bad injury to end last year and was kind of sluggish to start this season. But once he got going I thought he was one of the most dependable players in our club and he usually doesn’t get a lot of discussion but he’s a very important prospect for us to put himself on the map with a great year.
On the Marlies’ player development staff:
Every day. We’ve got a great player development staff. The impact that they had on the players was just massive. We were really fourtunate to have Robidas with use two of every four weeks. Sheldon and A.J. did a lot of work on the structure and systems side but in terms of the technical skill development, we had a lot of meetings to set up our individual play for each player and try to make it as individual as possible. And just the way that those two staffs came together it was a lot of fun to see. It’s our third year with that program and we still have a long way to go but I can’t say enough good things about Scott Pellerin and the job he has done leading that division in terms of his personality and character but also the expertise. When players go up to the Leafs, you hear them mention Barb (Underhill) or Darryl (Belfry). It’s of huge personal importance to them even though everything comes back to the team.
On summer plans for the players:
Our building is open every day and they can use the facilities if they want to, there’s no forcing them to. It’s a real balance to strike. Do you want some here all the time? They’re human beings as well. Whether you’re from Sweden or Finland or Minnesota or California, you have to remember that these are young people who haven’t seen their families in eight or nine months. We have excellent facilities here and we have excellent staff in terms of sports science and player development and a lot of the younger guys have used the facilities a lot but the guys who haven’t been here have also made big strides. If you’re here just to say you’re here but you’re unhappy because you’re not with your friends and family, you’re not going to get the most out of it. If you’re away and you’re not focused and locked in, you’re not going to.
On the Marlies’ push from last in the division in January to contention:
Obviously, three months ago we didn’t have a great feeling about where we were at but that doesn’t mean we didn’t believe in our people. We felt very confident we could turn things around. When things really hit rock bottom and we hit last place in the division, that gave us some time as a staff to dig into where we were and we looked at some statistical metrics to diagnose what might be happening. And in doing that we found some positives to give them reason to believe and continue to push.
We put ourselves in a position to succeed in the playoffs. It was a difficult one for me as a coach at any level. It was an important development opportunity for me and I’m certainly happy with how the players stuck with it.
The number one positive for us was that at that time in the season despite being one of the worst teams in the league from a points perspective we were number one in the league in goals given up at even strength. Our penalty kill was letting us down and the number of penalties we were taking was a concern. Defensively, when you have something you’re number one in and actually elite at something, I think that really had our guys perk up a bit.
On end-of-season discussions and the importance of honesty:
They can be difficult but at the same time I think players want honesty and that’s not just today but throughout the season. When the season ends you can assess where they’re at, identify what they’ve done well and try to tell them where their situation might sit while understanding we’re not the ones who make the decision.
We did this at the start of the season as well and sat down with each guy. As the season gets going, it’s difficult to do.
It’s give and take. We try to give them honest feedback but encourage feedback as well. It’s an opportunity for me to grow too. They can give you their sense of how they see things. You’ve got some players who are free agents and those guys are often the ones who you get the most honest answers from because they’re just going to speak their mind. The younger guys are a little more guarded.
On the importance of a big summer for the Marlies’ players:
In some cases for these guys, frankly, the summer is more important than anything that goes on during the season and it’s hard to recognize that. The summer is the time when you can really get after it and make changes to your game so it’s a really cool time for players.
On game-planning for next season:
I deal with the players that arrive here. Kyle and I are certainly in discussions but filling the roster is made at the Maple Leafs level. I stay away from that process as much as I can and focus on putting them in an environment.
On Brendan Leipsic:
I think he handled it well (the concussion). The injury came at a difficult time. Our team was just starting to turn the corner a little bit. He had some really dominant stretches of play this season that show that his skillset, his abilities are beyond this level but he also continues to be a guy that shows the other side and can be careless or irresponsible with the puck. On the other side of it defensively he shows that he can kill penalties, he can be hard to play against because he’s smart and he gets in position and he’s got some edge and grit to his game. It’s time for him to take that step but without question you watched his season as a whole where there were times where he looked like a player that doesn’t belong in the league, not one who does belong here and has warts in his game.
On Kasimir Kaskisuo:
Frankly, things didn’t go well for him. The reality is his statistics weren’t good and a number of goalies have gone down there and done much better – Garret Sparks is one of them. He proved he was ready and credit to him. Lots to take away from this season. He has established himself here now.
(Greco flew to Orlando on any day off.)
On standouts and the players who grew the most:
When we talk about improvement from the start of the season, the guys I look at are Timashov and Moore. Early in the season they really struggled, a lot of it was lack of opportunity and they went from being top players on their teams to really struggling for their minutes. They were not close, frankly, but they stuck with it and when injuries happened they took advantage.
Andreas Johnsson is a guy I think from the start of the season to finish really did a number of things. I don’t necessarily look at it as improvement because it was always there and he just needed to adjust. You tell him something once and he just goes out and does it. We’re really happy with his development.
Dermott and Nielsen are both guys that came a long way during the season.
When we talk about the young players, it’s interesting that you end up losing sight of a player like Kasperi Kapanen who is only 20 years old and because of his pedigree and his ability, you forget that he’s still in his development stage. He learned to play on the penalty kill for the first time in his life.
This is what the AHL is for – to add a dimension to players games – and I think Kapanen is a perfect example of that.