Tensions run high for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the best of times, and following a 4-2 loss to the lowly Arizona Coyotes earlier this week, head coach Sheldon Keefe ripped into his star players for underperforming after his club dropped to 2-2 to start the year.
“Our best people have not found a rhythm. The difference between us and Arizona is that we have elite players. And our elite players didn’t play like elite players,” Keefe told reporters post-game Monday.
Auston Matthews, the reigning Hart Trophy winner has registered one goal and two points in four games to begin the year, although the advanced stats suggest that he’s due for an offensive explosion soon. Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares are all averaging better than a point-per-game thus far, but it’s a pivotal year for the Maple Leafs and every game will be examined through a magnifying lens.
After individual meetings with their head coach over the past couple days following the public scrutiny, Marner and Matthews appear to be taking it in stride.
“He explained what he meant to say and how it came out and everything like that and I’ll leave it at that,” Marner said Wednesday. “We have closed doors for a reason and we have talks without you guys [media] for a reason. We had that talk today. We understand. We’re grown men.”
Keefe offered a clarification of his comments Wednesday morning.
“I used some of the wrong words to try to describe what I was trying to describe, which is that the difference in the game, I find, was that we weren’t able to produce,” The Maple Leafs head coach said.
“By no means was I meaning anything beyond that. They didn’t know what I was talking about, which is a good thing. At the same time it is important that they know where I was coming from.”
This is part of the territory of playing for a talented team in a hungry market with Stanley Cup potential that has also lost six consecutive first-round series.
Matthews shared Marner’s assertion that the Maple Leafs’ best players weren’t hurt by Keefe’s post-game analysis.
“I kind of understand how it works now,” Matthews said. “I think the conversations that happen behind closed doors without media and stuff go beyond more generally discussed than just harping on guys.”
Toronto resumes its season on Thursday against the Dallas Stars.
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