Sheldon Keefe calls out multiple Maple Leafs players in performance he ‘hated’

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TORONTO, Ont. — Sheldon Keefe has never been one to shy away from being critical of his team’s performances throughout his four-and-half-year tenure as Toronto Maple Leafs coach, but rarely has his captain, John Tavares, drawn his ire.

And yet after a 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils Keefe didn’t hesitate to do just that, calling out Tavares among multiple other veteran players in a performance he said he “hated” lots about.

The Leafs came out firing with a strong first period bolstered by 26 shots on goal. But hours later, after squandering multiple opportunities with the puck, one of Keefe’s more forceful, fiery but still shorter postgame press conferences became the story.

“They’ve got to be the example,” Keefe said after being asked about what he’s looking for from players such as Auston Matthews and William Nylander, who addressed the media postgame. “John Tavares has been the example for us. He’s been outstanding for us for a long period of time. He himself got carried away tonight. That’s our captain. So if that’s going to happen, well, the rest of our bench is just making it up as we go. And when you do that, you open the door for the opposition to have a good night.”

Tavares did not speak to the media postgame. Among the giveaways in Tavares’ game Keefe wanted to highlight, the Leafs centre finished with six shots on goal in 19:22.

There are times when Keefe can veer toward the succinct postgame, like after the Leafs’ 2-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday when his availability clocked in at under a minute.

There are others, like on Tuesday, when there is a little more spice added to the mix and increased, animated body language speaks not to disappointment, but evident frustration.

“I thought we just overdid it,” Keefe said of his team’s performance after the first period, throwing his hands in the air. “It was just really immature, all the way through our game. I thought it was immature from our most experienced players, our leaders. And then our players who are immature, our inexperienced guys, we made lots of mistakes here today. The first period, Bobby McMann gives up a two-on-one, doesn’t do his job there.”

Keefe then called out the play of Pontus Holmberg and Matthew Knies as well as multiple lines for their poor performances.

“(Devils forward) Jack Hughes gets two breakaways. You’re not winning the game if that’s going to be the case. (I) hated lots about our game tonight. Hopefully the players hated it just as much or more than I do,” Keefe said.

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The loss leaves the Leafs with just 11 games remaining in their schedule. With the Tampa Bay Lightning now just four points behind the Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division, Keefe’s comments felt like a deserved effort to remind his group of the dangers of complacency.

At one end of the Eastern Conference on Tuesday evening, the New York Rangers became the first NHL team to clinch a postseason berth. Somewhere not on the opposite end, but in the murky middle, the Leafs remained beset by their own inconsistency. One performance in which they dominate the Edmonton Oilers with a blend of physical and fast-paced hockey is followed a few days later by a performance in which the Leafs appeared to sink themselves.

The Leafs got goals from Auston Matthews, Tyler Bertuzzi and William Nylander against the Devils, forcing a 3-2 lead midway through the second period. But their inability to play a simple and direct game with the puck allowed the Devils back into a game that, at least early on, they had no business being in.

The Leafs’ five-on-five expected goals swung from 72 percent in the first period to just 43 percent in the second period, per Natural Stat Trick.

It’s that inconsistency that Keefe has highlighted all season as plaguing his team. And it’s what he referenced again after the loss to the Devils.

“It has happened a lot for our group over the years,” Keefe said when asked if the performance against the Devils was a one-off. “And I’m talking about the experienced people. And that came back tonight. The game invited it. (The Leafs) had 25 shots. Everyone is feeling great. You have lots of puck touches. You think it is going to happen again if you stick with it. I don’t know if anyone has ever gotten 75 shots in a game before, but I don’t think it happens. Usually, things adjust and the opposition pushes back. The game kind of tidies up a little bit.”

Keefe continued, calling his team “incredibly sloppy and careless.”

“That is disappointing. It hasn’t been us (as of late). We haven’t played that way for quite some time. I thought our guys got a little too excited and carried away. We will tighten it back up really quickly,” he said.

Joseph Woll allowed five goals on 24 shots in his continued bid for the starter’s job. He allowed a goal on the first shot of the game and also drew Keefe’s ire.

“You can’t let in the first shot of the game,” Keefe said of Woll. “That is two in a row now. But the chances we gave up tonight were egregious. There are lots of issues in front of him.”

For what it’s worth, Matthews also called out his team’s game, labelling it “a little bit of an immature game from us.”

The Leafs’ schedule doesn’t let up with four games in eight days, including two games against Atlantic Division rivals the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. With the regular season dwindling, it remains to be seen whether Keefe calling out some of his top players will indeed light the desired fire under them.

“I don’t think that’s stuff you want to see in the game at this point in the year, especially with 10 games left,” Matthews said. “That’s on us, on the players and we just can’t let that happen.”

(Photo: Andrew Lahodynskyj / NHLI via Getty Images)

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