After Tuesday’s practice, Sheldon Keefe discussed the team’s 5v5 play over the last five games, Wayne Simmonds’ promotion in practice onto the John Tavares line, the injury status of Alex Kerfoot, Mikko Lehtonen’s adjustment, and Nic Petan joining the main group in practice.
Practice Lines – February 2
#Leafs lines at practice:
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) February 2, 2021
We didn’t see Kerfoot out for the main practice. What is the update on his status?
Keefe: He is day to day at this point. His situation is pretty similar to what Auston had previously. In this case, we have a little bit more time off. He skated today. We’ll see how he is tomorrow. Obviously, that will impact his status for the game.
In what areas does Ilya Mikheyev’s game need to grow?
Keefe: We would like to find ways to help him generate more offense for himself — generate more dangerous shots, more opportunities. With the speed and power and size that he has, we think he can get to the inside a lot more. We are working with him on that — to challenge defenders a lot more and make it harder. If he is not going to generate chances, he can draw penalties or create opportunities for others. That is a big piece of it there offensively.
There are a number of little details in his game defensively that can continue to get better. Physically, making contact and being engaged and using his body that way is a big part of it. At the same time, you look at his game, and he brings a lot to the team. All of our players have areas where they can get better, but he has been an effective player for us.
When we look at all of the other areas he can improve, that is just a bonus for us. But we do think there is great potential for him to add those layers.
Last year, the team was one of the tops in the league when it came to pace and offensive chances at even strength. This year, the team has dropped down to about 17th through 10 games. Was it a conscious choice to slow games down? If so, why would you make that choice?
Keefe: That is not a choice of ours. In particular, on this past road trip, we saw a pretty dramatic reduction in our pace and how much we had the puck, and how much we played on offense. Some of that is just the teams we played against: Edmonton and Calgary are both two teams that are good with the puck and good on the rush. We played with a lead for the better part of most of those games, and I didn’t think we managed that very well.
There is a distinct drop from the first five games we played to the last five in the areas we are talking about. That is a big area of focus for us: to pick that up there.
Jason Spezza mentioned after the Edmonton game the emphasis on wanting to win in regulation. He said it had been talked about. Is it a point of emphasis you have hammered home with the guys — how important it is to win in regulation when it is all divisional games?
Keefe: I haven’t so much talked about that with the team. I think it goes without saying. We have talked about each point remaining in the division and how important every game is. We haven’t talked a great deal about avoiding extra time or anything like that. I think it goes without saying that you are trying to win a game in regulation.
When it gets down towards the end, it is not something we are talking about or the players are talking about. We always want to win the game in regulation, even more so with every point remaining in the division. But it is not something that we get too distracted with. We know what we need to do when we play.
As you look to get Mikko Lehtonen more comfortable as an NHL player, what is the message for him?
Keefe: The message is that he has to continue to adjust to the NHL level. The difficulty is that we are rolling here in the season. It is not like we can just put him out there and let him figure it out and sort it out. It is not as simple as that. We are in a very competitive division. We are in a shortened season. A lot of these bugs, as we have talked to him about, would usually be sorted out through exhibition. That hasn’t been possible.
It is real tough. He has to find ways to adjust through practice. We think a lot of the things that happen on our side of the ice — our half of the ice — have to get better with Mikko, both with and without the puck. He has to continue to get reps with that. It has been a focus for him in our development sessions yesterday and today and in our meetings with him.
He has to continue to find ways to adapt. We have said it before, but for players who are trying to adjust to the NHL — whether you are a younger player or a player like Mikko, who is an older, more established pro from Europe — it is tougher than ever to adjust, particularly on a team like ours that is competing every night and has played in very close hockey games in each one. And our defense has remained healthy.
It has been tough for him. He has to keep working and staying patient. He and Sandin, in that sense, are in tough. They have to maximize every single day that they get in practice and in development. Whether they are playing or not, they have to find a way to get better. It is an additional challenge for those guys. It is not as simple as just putting them in the lineup.
In Lehtonen’s case, we have done that at times. We have sat Dermott, and he didn’t necessarily deserve to sit or anything like that. We were able to make that concession, but beyond that, it is difficult to get these guys in. They have to get better every day.
What have you picked up on from Wayne Simmonds of late, and how do you think he might complement John Tavares and William Nylander if that is what you are going with going forward?
Keefe: I think on the road trip, he was a real standout for us. He has gotten a little bit more each game. The injury to Jumbo has allowed us to move things around a little bit. We have given him more opportunity. He has lots of jump. He looks quick. He is on the puck. He is competitive. He is around the net. He found a way to score in three straight games for us, giving him a little extra confidence and a little extra boost.
As for lines, we haven’t made any decisions about what we are going to do there as we go into the next game. We just wanted to give that a look today. I thought Wayne looked great in practice today — lots of energy, lots of jump.
We had a development session with him before practice today. Yesterday, he was one of the players that had the option and he wanted to come in to get some extra work. He has learned to really value the development sessions we have around here, whether it is the ones in the offseason or the ones during the season here. He has seen value in that and has seen some areas he can improve upon. He took it upon himself to put some work in yesterday.
It is all positives surrounding Wayne. We wanted to give him a look with John and Will today. We are going to talk about and get a look at what we are expecting from Vancouver’s lineup. They play a game today, and we will make decisions on what we want to do with our lines to counter that.
What is the outlook for Nic Petan? What went into having him join the main group?
Keefe: As we have gone through it here, we have used different people on our fourth line. We have moved guys in and out of the lineup and in and out of the stay-ready group. I just felt — in talking to Kyle as we were going through everybody — that Nic belonged in that group. He has some things that he can offer us. We wanted to give him that chance, so we brought him in here to give him a chance in practice on a regular line today. He will be in that mix for us to discuss what we are going to do with our fourth line going ahead here.
I do like Nic. I think he brings a lot of very good things. As we have gotten to see some of the other guys who have played, we definitely feel that he belongs in that group and should get an opportunity. He is another guy who, had there been an exhibition, would have been in competition to play on our fourth line and get a chance in our lineup. It hasn’t worked out to this point, we are continuing to tweak and experiment with that and give those guys some exposure.