After practice on Sunday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the return of Joe Thornton to the lineup, his place in the lineup next to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, William Nylander’s play of late, Zach Hyman joining John Tavares and Nylander, and Scott Sabourin skating on the fourth line in practice.
Practice Lines – February 14
#Leafs lines at practice:
SRS: Petan, Boyd, Barabanov
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) February 14, 2021
In what ways do you expect the return of Joe Thornton, if he is indeed back tomorrow, to boost the lineup?
Keefe: It obviously adds to our depth with the way that his presence has a trickle-down effect throughout the lineup. That is going to help us positively there. In addition to that, his voice and his energy — all of those things that we haven’t had around. It is good to have those back as well.
What have you seen of late from William Nylander? When he was really going this year, what stands out?
Keefe: I think he is trying to find his game here offensively and find his way within the division, the way that the games are going, and the way that teams key in on him and make it hard. At the same time, he — like some of our other guys — is trying to find a way to generate offense within a more structured game.
The games that we are playing, because of how we are playing defensively, naturally aren’t as open as they were previously. You’ve got to adjust and find ways to play within that. I think that is where he and a lot of guys on our team are still trying to find themselves offensively.
It’s a bit of a reset with Joe Thornton coming in, Scott Sabourin getting in against his old team, and a new line with Zach Hyman. How do you think it might all work into tomorrow’s game?
Keefe: I think there is an opportunity for that [reset] a little bit, in particular with Joe and Zach and in terms of our whole lineup and lines, for that matter. I haven’t made any final determinations. I wouldn’t assume anything based on today’s practice.
Can you comment on Scott Sabourin and what he might bring?
Keefe: He is a different type of player than we have here. He brings a lot in terms of his presence, the way he skates and works, and he’s got good size. He is very competitive and a very physical player. He has real good energy about him. He has experience now having played in the NHL last season. He is just another guy we were happy to bring into our mix of players that have been down with the Marlies or on our taxi squad who can compete for time on our fourth line.
It is good to have him around here now. He hasn’t had as much time with our group. To me, I wanted to have him on a line in practice today so that we got him a little bit more involved with our everyday players so that it helps him with that transition.
Is there anything, in particular, you thought worked well with Thornton next to Matthews and Marner:
Keefe: I just thought they had good chemistry. I thought a lot of the things I was hoping would happen with the line were happening. Joe, with his skill set and the way he moves the puck, complemented those guys very well. Also, Joe is a presence down below the hashmarks in the offensive zone, and he did that very well for them.
An area I had underestimated a little bit is Joe’s ability to win the puck back. The number of times where he was tracking guys from behind, with his reach, he gets his stick on the puck and creates so many loose pucks and turnovers and opportunities for Mitch and Auston going the other way.
Those kinds of things really stood out. I think the line had enough success and did enough good things in that short window that I didn’t want an unfortunate injury to Joe to disrupt what was our plan to go with to start the season. I don’t think the sample was big enough to make any real determinations either way. We want to give it a bit more runway here. We are hoping it can stick.
The power play has gone 0-for-5 over the last three games. Does Thornton give you a boost there? Is it a matter of not as many opportunities with fewer calls happening?
Keefe: Yeah, I think it is a bit of both things. We haven’t had as many opportunities to really find much rhythm with the power play because we haven’t had as many opportunities in each game. Also, we have had some disruptions, whether it is Joe leaving and then Simmonds leaving the lineup. We tried some different things to see how it would work. It hasn’t quite been there for us in terms of the chemistry and the rhythm of it.
Also, I think it is partly the other teams adjusting, too. Penalty kills get better over the course of the season. That is just the way it goes. Other teams are adjusting to you, especially when you are playing the same team over and over.
As much as the power play has an advantage with one more player, the reality it is the penalty kill has the advantage — that is why the best power plays only come in at between 20-30%. We have to find a way to get that back on track, for sure.
What is standing out about the way Zach Hyman is playing this year?
Keefe: In the last 10 games or so, he has really found his game and has really found his legs. I thought he was a standout for us yesterday in terms of dealing with the physicality and playing through that and still being effective. He has brought a lot to that line with Auston and Mitch, which, of course, we appreciate. We have always known that he brings those elements to that line and he will still be available to us to mix into that line at different times.
The way he skates, protects the puck, transports it from our zone to the offensive zone, and gets it back there — we are hoping all of those kinds of things can help JT and Will find their game and have things really come together for them.