Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jason Spezza says coach Sheldon Keefe has ‘earned our respect’

If there was any lingering doubt about whether Sheldon Keefe would or could deliver a pointed message to his team, there is not any more.

Trailing 3-0 to the Edmonton Oilers on Monday after allowing two goals in the first 1:45 of the second period following a first period in which they were outshot 17-11, the Toronto Maple Leafs coach was swift in removing goalie Frederik Andersen from the net. After the game, the coach made it abundantly clear what led to the somewhat surprising decision.

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“I just told our team I’m not going to let Freddie play behind that. That’s not fair to him. To that point I felt like he already had almost a full game worth of work,” Keefe said after the 6-4 loss. “We made the change — sometimes you make those changes and it gets your team’s attention. I had to do something such as that to get our team’s attention and to save Freddie from what was happening. We had no issue with anything that he was doing in the net.”

Keefe could have responded to the question of why he pulled Andersen far more diplomatically by offering platitudes like ‘I was just looking to spark our team’ or ‘I felt it was the right decision at the time’ to the media, but he was as direct as he could be.

Words like ‘not going to let Freddie play behind that’ and ‘save Freddie from what was happening’? That’s about as strong a message as a coach can send. To put it bluntly, Keefe essentially said the team blew the game in front of Andersen, that they played horrendously and that they better get their act together. He is not wrong, but to hear a coach deliver the message in the way Keefe did was eye opening — if for no other reason than Keefe has been painted with a reputation of giving the players what they want since he took over for Mike Babcock on November 20.

It was the type of message that would surely grab the attention of the players. The question is — how would the message be taken? Well, it sounds like it was well received.

“Sheldon’s earned our respect. He delivers an honest message in between periods and in between games and when you get honesty all the time, you’re allowed to step out and give a (crap) when we need it,” Jason Spezza told Sporting News. “He’s earned our respect and we’d expect nothing less. It was a fair message. Freddie has been our backbone all year and we didn’t have a very good game in front of him and he was sending us a message by pulling Freddie. It had less to do with Freddie and more to do with us and that was crystal clear to us.”

Keefe has made a point since his tenure began of making sure to create moments for players in situations that are important to them. He started Spezza on December 23rd against the Carolina Hurricanes — an afternoon game in which Keefe knew Spezza’s four daughters were all in attendance. They got to hear their dad announced in the starting lineup and watch him score 30 seconds into the game.

There have been other examples. Justin Holl, a Minnesota native, was in the starting lineup when the Maple Leafs visited the Wild last week. Same for Adam Brooks, a Winnipeg native, two nights later on the road against the Jets.

The way Keefe sees it, if the players feel it’s a two-way street, they are more likely to take a stern message when it needs to be delivered.

“That’s why things we do to try to create an environment where players are comfortable coming here and things are done to recognize situations that are important for specific players, those type of things make them recognize we are in it with them so that when there is a time that you have to make a decision that shocks the system, they take it the right way and recognize that it is done with the right intent,” Keefe said.

So even though the Maple Leafs were on a 10-game point streak (9-0-1) and had won three in a row prior to Monday’s loss, Keefe’s most pointed criticism since becoming coach because of a poor first 22 minutes against the Oilers seems to have been taken the right way.

“I don’t think there is any offense taken,” captain John Tavares said. “We have to challenge ourselves every day to get better and not to be satisfied with the results or think things are going to continue to come. It’s because of good habits and work ethic and structure we’re playing with that brings out the best in all of us, especially with what Sheldon has brought to the table in terms of how he wants us to play. You have to have pride in doing that every single day but certainly he feels it’s important when he starts to see that slip to address it which I think is great. It’s pretty clear that we just weren’t even close to good enough. It’s unfair to Freddie and what he’s brought to the team every single day so it was a very strong message and very clear.”

Alternate captain Morgan Rielly, who was on the ice for two of the Oilers first three goals, had no problem accepting the reasoning for Andersen getting the hook either.

“It just means we have to be better,” Rielly said. “Freddie has been outstanding for us all year and the expectation is we are going to compete and play hard for him and that obviously wasn’t the case early on in the game so he did what he thought was right and I agree with him.”

Defenseman Travis Dermott said not only did the message got his attention on the bench, but that he hopes it serves as a reminder going forward as to where the fault lied against the Oilers.

“It opened up my eyes that we kind of screwed this game up for Freddie. I think it was good call by him,” Dermott said. “I haven’t seen it too often where you are pulling the goalie because of that but when you think about it makes a lot of sense. The goals they were scoring, Freddie couldn’t do much about a lot of them. That’s where this message comes into mind where if you are letting it slide and not really thinking about what kind of opportunities they were getting, it’s not easy to forget about it but you can think, ‘oh the whole team isn’t playing well’ but this slowed us down and made us realize we were really throwing Freddie under the bus.”

Keefe said he met with Andersen in his office prior to practice on Tuesday to make sure he had fully communicated the reasoning behind the decision to remove him from the game. Andersen was visibly angry on the bench, slamming his helmet down as he left the ice and still appeared edgy after the game. On Tuesday, Andersen made clear he was not angry at Keefe for pulling him but more so with the how the game had gone to that point.

That type of communication has gone a long way with the players and has given Keefe the ability to drop the hammer when a message needs to be sent.

“I’m happy they feel that way (that they understand the message),” Keefe said. “I think being honest is the foundation of building trust in any kind of relationship. A lot of the things we are trying to do is to build something where the players recognize we are in this with them. It’s not us against them, we are all in this together and working together.”

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