Alex Barbanov, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Canadian Press

After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the status of his injured players (Jake Muzzin, Jack Campbell, Frederik Andersen, Joe Thornton), the challenge coming up in the three-game series against Edmonton, and Jimmy Vesey’s play vs. the internal competition down the lineup.

Practice Lines – February 26

What is Auston Matthews’ status and what is your level of concern with his injury?

Keefe: He is day to day here. He is not ruled out for tomorrow. We’ll have to see how he continues to progress.

Do you have a best guess for who is on and who is out for tomorrow among your day-to-day group?

Keefe: That is going to depend on how guys respond to practice today. With Thornton and Muzzin being back in full practice today, both looked good and got through the whole practice. I would say that is positive as far as they playing tomorrow, but we won’t know until tomorrow. Those guys will be game-time decisions. Auston will be a game-time decision.

In terms of the next stretch of games, Edmonton is breathing down your neck. You talked about how one bad week can lead to someone catching you.  Is that just life in this division this year?

Keefe: Yeah, that’s the nature of the season. A team like Edmonton has played as good or anybody in the league in the last little while. They have been picking up a lot of points. We feel like we have been going pretty well as a team here, and it is still real close. You can’t take any games or any days off. Certainly, this week, that has been the case going head-to-head.

This road trip — who you are playing, and how many games in a row — how challenging is it compared to earlier in the season?

Keefe: I think on our last long road trip, we also played Edmonton twice. We are playing them three times here now. The standings have rejigged a little bit. We have played Edmonton four times now and each has been a very difficult game for us. We are expecting more of the same here now — in fact, even more so given the confidence that the Oilers have at this point.

Edmonton’s hot run started with their win against you. Have you seen in the video where they have made strides in their game?

Keefe: I see a lot more of what we have seen from them in our games against them. They got off to a bit of a slow start, but it started with the first game we played them in Toronto. They played a terrific team game from start to finish. I think we have seen that in each of the games we have played against them.

What I see in the games I have watched recently is more of that. They are finding their confidence and consistency every night. We know who their game breakers are. They are playing a real sound team game that is giving them opportunities to win. I see a lot of similarities there to how we have found consistency as a team.

How would you describe Jimmy Vesey’s season so far? What have you liked? What would you like to see more of?

Keefe: The way I would describe it is that he hasn’t been able to make his mark and really claim his role and what he is going to be able to bring on a consistent basis. In each game he has played, we have found positives in it. At the same time, he is in a situation where we have had other guys who have come into the lineup with a lot less oppportunity and have found a way to make an impact in the game positively — especially offensively.

He is in a situation where he’s being challenged and pushed for his ice time. That said, we do think he has been consistent and reliable defensively. He has helped us on the penalty kill. We like him there. We have found value in his game.

Both he and us had expectations that he would find his game offensively a little bit more. That hasn’t happened here yet. He is in a competition and will remain that way until we get it sorted out. Between Barabanov, Petan, and Boyd, these guys who have come in have really taken advantage of their opportunity here.

Barabanov has had two consecutive games here now where he has really been generating offense and chances each shift virtually, it seems, that he is out there while not hurting us defensively. That is a positive for his development.

The consistency that Vesey has brought defensively has allowed him to stay in the lineup throughout, but as other guys play better, it is making it tougher and tougher to make those decisions.

Where do things stand with the goaltending situation heading into the road trip?

Keefe: Soupy does look good to go. Today’s practice was again another big one for him to get through. He has had a lot of positive days here consecutively. It is looking good. Again, as long as gets through tomorrow well, he will start.

As for Fred, he is continuing to progress. His making the decision that he wanted to get on the ice and get a feel for things today is a positive step for us. He will be on the trip. He continues to be day to day.

What stands out to you about the way Matthews has been able to deal with the wrist injury and still produce at the rate he has?

Keefe: It speaks to how he has remained resilient and hasn’t allowed little things like that to disrupt him. Obviously, with the injury situation, he has missed a game already, and he bounced right back and had a tremendous run.

Even the other night, he got banged up there in the second period. While he had to adapt his game and I had to adapt how we used him a little bit, he still competed his ass off right to the very end. He made a great play to give Willy the space to make the play he did on the game-tying goal.

That is a good sign. We feel that the injury is not something that is going to slow him down too much here, and there is also the fact that he competes and finds ways to adapt.

All of the talk is about McDavid vs. Matthews, but Draisaitl plays in Edmonton and Marner in Toronto. They’re two of the best passers in the whole league, and they’re maybe #1 and #2 in the plus/minus. Do they just get overlooked because of the brilliance of Matthews and McDavid?

Keefe: They certainly don’t get overlooked inside these walls. On our side with Mitch, we know what he brings to our team and what he brings to the ice with how he makes people around him better. Similarly, preparing to play Edmonton and coaching against them in the game, we feel Draisaitl’s presence when he is there. I certainly have a tremendous amount of respect — our coaching staff and players as well — for what Mitch brings for us but the Draisaitl factor as well is significant.

Of course, you appreciate at the same time that Auston and Connor are both world-class players and generational players. They deserve the recognition at the same time.