After practice on Thursday, Sheldon Keefe discussed Ilya Mikheyev’s standout training camp so far, how close he is to finalizing a lineup for Game 1, Nick Robertson’s case for making the Game 1 lineup, Auston Matthews’ progression throughout camp, and the difference in William Nylander’s play on Auston Matthews’ wing versus John Tavares’.

Much of the media voted Ilya Mikheyev as the MVP of the scrimmage tournament. What have you seen from him through Phase 3 and how important is he for your team’s hopes?

Keefe: I thought he was excellent. As we’ve talked about throughout this, he probably more than anybody is really excited and happy to be back here playing in a team environment. It has been a long road for him to get back to playing in game action. He had a little extra jump all throughout this. That was really great to see.

I thought today was his best day as well. He and his line, I thought, were really good. They were playing with lots of pace and making lots of plays, and they seemed to have good chemistry all the way throughout. That was a really good piece.

He obviously means a lot to our team. It was a big hole in our lineup when he left. He and Andreas Johnsson both at the same time, to leave the lineup, they were big holes. To have one of them back here is a great boost for us.

Can you talk about why you balanced it and put the Tavares line against the Matthews line? 

Keefe: We hadn’t seen that here yet. In practice, they had been going head to head since we’ve gone to one group, but we haven’t had that. Today being our last formal scrimmage like this, we wanted to mix it up. The series we had put together ended yesterday. Today, we had an opportunity to reshuffle things and put it together that way. I thought it worked out well — not just for those guys and their matchup, but the way the matchups underneath unfolded as well.

How close do you feel to finalizing your Game 1 lineup?

Keefe: I feel pretty close in the sense that we have narrowed it down pretty well. I think just looking at our practice group, we’ve got our 13 and 8 guys we’ve been kind of working with. That said, a lot of things can change here — some that are in our control and some that aren’t. We are not committing to anything at this stage. We don’t have to.

We are going to take a day off tomorrow and we are going to have another good practice on Saturday. We’ll then get ourselves ready to transition into Phase 4. Of course, the exhibition game is right on the horizon. We’ve got a lot of things that will work themselves out here in the next little bit.

Having coached in best-of-fives before, do you have a theory or game plan you like to have in terms of how long of a leash you give your starting goalie?

Keefe: [Laughs] No, I don’t. One game at a time. We’ll focus on that. Any time you go into a series with any sort of strategy of what to do if things don’t work out for your goalie, you are not setting yourself up for success. Our goalie is going to be ready to go and we’ll take everything one day at a time.

How much of a different animal is the best-of-five than the best-of-seven? What are the things that come into play early that might be different?

Keefe: There is an increased level of urgency into every game. That’s not to say that every game doesn’t matter in a best-of-seven, of course. There is an urgency to it. At the same time, even if you get yourself in a hole, you can get back into it a lot quicker. If you have the lead, it’s that much more important. If you’re behind, it’s not as far to come back and win the thing. Those types of pieces, I think, change the dynamic slightly.

In terms of the exhibition game, you only get one of them. How important is it from the aspect of becoming familiar with what’s to come with the realities of a game day in the bubble?

Keefe: I think that’s the most important given the fact that the game itself is going to happen really on the eve of the playoffs, in essence. The on-ice game itself might be difficult to get through. Of course, nobody on either team is going to want to get hurt. You have the balance of trying to get your game better and get your game right, but I think really what it is about is that whole experience.

It is going to be an entirely different world. For us, we are going to be playing in our own building but in a different room and on a different bench. There is a lot of stuff happening there and it’s important we be able to live it one time before we are onto it for real.

Where do you think Auston Matthews is at after the scrimmage series? It looks like he is really commanding the play. Have you seen progression over the course of the series with him?

Keefe: Yeah, I have. I have seen progression, of course, with his conditioning and being able to sustain his play for longer. I think he has been really good. We have talked about the fact that he hasn’t shot the puck here a great deal, but he is making a ton of plays. He has won the puck back with his skill set and his body. A lot of the things I was hoping to see from him in this camp I have seen. He is the least of my worries at this stage.

Based on what you know now, do you expect Nick Robertson to be in your lineup on August 2nd?

Keefe: We haven’t made any decisions on that here yet. The exhibition game will really help us refine things here a little bit. I’ve really liked the progression that he has shown. There are other things at play here, of course. There is his play and his development throughout all of this, but there are also decisions to make on other players — the ones that have been in our lineup and played for us up until the pause. We are kind of making a decision based on all of those factors as to what is going to help us to best prepare to win Game 1.

We will focus on that when the time really comes. Right now, we are just trying to continue to progress and get ourselves prepared for the exhibition game that is coming here.

How much of the decision is dictated by the opponent you are playing in Columbus, who have a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners approach? Does that matter?

Keefe: I don’t think that matters in this case for us. We are trying to put the best team possible on the ice and make the right decisions for our group that will help us win no matter who the opponent is.

How do you assess the progress made by the club defensively for the group as a whole through the camp so far?

Keefe: One thing that we really wanted to see good progress in is just guys being able to pick up some of the things we are doing differently here. A lot of the competitive pieces of it — the physicality, all of those kinds of things — we expect would be the most difficult to really execute in an environment like this where you are going up against your teammates. But in terms of picking up the concepts and things like that, we have seen pretty steady progress through the scrimmages and practice sessions. We have a little ways to go here.

I am hoping the exhibition game will be a real good opportunity for us in a real competitive environment against a true opponent in terms of getting those things to come together. The general understanding of what we want to do has been there.

Outside of that top-six forward group, is there someone who really stood out to you where you could really appreciate the progression they made over the last several games?

Keefe: I would say Kappy is the one who stands out for me in that area if I look at his progression through the first three days of camp on to this “second phase” of this camp. He has really raised his level and the way he has played the game in terms of using his speed and getting on the puck and having second and third efforts on the puck. Those are the kinds of things we need to see from him. He is a real difference-maker for us when he does that. I have been happy to see that. It’s a real positive sign for us coming out of this.

Do you find there is a difference from William Nylander when he plays with Auston Matthews than when he plays with John Tavares?

Keefe: I wouldn’t say so, no. I think Willy is a confident guy and is able to play his game with either. When Willy is at his best, he is able to complement others but also help drive and make others better. I like him in any of those situations.

I would say it’s similar even if he plays outside of those guys. He is able to do things well. We played him in the middle in one of these scrimmages and I thought he did really well; I think he was with Mikheyev and Brooks that day. It was a good line and he played well. Will is capable of adapting and adjusting to his linemates but also of helping make them better.