Sheldon Keefe admits to purposely trying to overwhelm Knies, Robertson

Ryan Smitheram
April 2, 2024  (12:28)

Matthew Knies cuts toward the blueline during warmups

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe admitted after Monday's win against the Florida Panthers that we was purposely trying to overwhelm the line of Matthew Knies, Pontus Holmberg and Nick Robertson.

Last night, many people noticed that Knies, Holmberg and Robertson were being used by Keefe in situations that they had seldom or never been in previously, particularly in the third period when the Panthers were clawing their way back into the game. During his post-game media availability, Keefe was asked why he did it. His response made a lot of sense.
"I was going to put that line in some tough spots tonight on purpose and see how they could handle it. And some of it was really good, that's a great moment in the game. They had a couple other really good moments. They obviously scored another goal in the second period. They're on the ice for two goals in the third. And again, I'm kind of purposely putting them in some tough spots and having them work their way through it. That's part of the growing pains to get three first-year players essentially all on the same line. It's a tough opponent over there, but they'll be better having gone through it tonight."

Although the trio all played under 10 minutes, with Knies not even reaching 7 minutes of playing time, they managed to contribute offensively, as Keefe noted with Knies and Robertson scoring in the 6-4 win. He was also pleased with the response from Knies in the first period after Holmberg was hit awkwardly into the boards by Panthers defenseman Niko Mikkola.
"The Knies response — you like those kinds of things that happen. You like it even more when you get the kill coming out of it. Those kinds of things were good."

Knies, who was injured in Game 2 in the second round by Sam Bennett last year, admitted that the scrum was part of setting the tone before noting it felt like a playoff game.
"We were engaged in the game. I just wanted to kind of set the tone for the game. It was hard. I think it was a lot more physical and fast paced. It looked like a playoff game."

How much blame can be put on Keefe for that decision leading to Florida's comeback?

Up by four heading into the third, it made no sense for Keefe to shorten the bench and keep Knies, Robertson and Holmberg from gaining valuable experience. The lead is what likely gave him more comfort with his decision to see how they'd respond to adversity in an intense, playoff-like game. The decision, whether fans agree with it or not, was the right one. They need to learn how to deal with the adversity now so they know how to handle it better in the playoffs. Did it make the end of the game more unsettling for fans? Ilya Samsonov thought so.
"Interesting for fans. We get some nervousness from everybody all the time."

Knies admitted that he and his line struggled dealing with the adversity in the third period when the Panthers mounted their comeback, pointing out that the structure from the team had disappeared, but credited the rest of the team with holding on for the win.
"I don't think we played structured enough in the third period. We let loose, including myself. I think I left the door open for Sam [Bennett, who scored], and then I don't think it was a good effort from our line. But the guys stepped up in here and got the job done at the end of the night."

Even with a tough third period, the line combined for two goals and five points and was only a minus-1.

Is the philosophy change related to the departure of Kyle Dubas?

The decision to really challenge this trio of young players in a meaningful game was a head-scratcher for many last night, given the fact that home ice advantage is still within reach for the Leafs. That's just one of the reasons why Keefe was asked about it following the game. It is not something we have seen from Keefe in the past with rookies or less experienced players. Normally, he is doing his best to shelter them from adversity and limiting their minutes, which makes trusting them in the playoffs even more difficult.
It makes you wonder if the change in philosophy is a result of not having Kyle Dubas tamper with what Keefe is trying to do after watching from above. The more old-school Brad Treliving seems content to let his people do their jobs. It has been noticeable this season that Keefe is far more outspoken in his media availabilities and is freely calling out players without having to walk back comments the following day, which was a common occurrence under Dubas.
It has been well-documented that Keefe is not Treliving's "guy" per se behind the bench, but nonetheless he has given Keefe a lengthy leash in terms of how to handle his players. Treliving has mentioned on a number of occasions that he believes that Keefe is a good coach. Trusting him to do his job seems like the right call. So far, it's worked out nicely. Funny what can happen when you trust people to do the job they were hired to do.
Whether Keefe will continue to use his final run of games to put players like Knies, Robertson and Holmberg into more challenging positions, risking valuable points in the standings to test them and see if they can rise to the occasion remains up in the air. I'm sure we'll see more of it, but maybe not in every game. Tomorrow's game against Tampa, for example, is a huge swing game. A win gives the Leafs some extra cushion and widens the gap that Tampa would need to close in order to push the Leafs down into a Wild Card spot. That's a game that, I would think, the Leafs will hope to have a more optimal lineup and deploy them accordingly.
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Sheldon Keefe admits to purposely trying to overwhelm Knies, Robertson

Will Matthew Knies, Pontus Holmberg and Nick Robertson remain together when the playoffs begin?

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