After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed his impressions of Ben Hutton so far, the balance between prioritizing rest vs. playoff readiness in the final three games, and provided updates on the status of Nick Foligno, Zach Hyman, Frederik Andersen, and Riley Nash.
Practice Lines – May 7
#Leafs lines at practice
Non-Contact: Hyman, Nash
— David Alter (@dalter) May 7, 2021
Leafs PP units at practice
— David Alter (@dalter) May 7, 2021
Do you foresee any lineup changes for tomorrow? Are there any updates on your injured guys?
Keefe: Foligno skated today on his own. That is obviously a good sign for us here. Scott Sabourin continues to make his way back to full health. He is not quite there yet. Hyman and Nash got back on the ice today again with us. They continue to make good strides.
In terms of lineup changes for tomorrow, we will have Brooks going back in for Noesen. Hutton will go in for Sandin.
Rasmus has played very well for us. We have liked a lot about his game and what he brings to our team. His situation is more related to the salary cap than it is anything else.
With Sandin’s case with the cap, will it prevent him from being able to play games next week? Do you know that yet?
Keefe: It all depends. It is more pre-emptive than anything — just giving ourselves some flexibility as we get into next week.
What did you think of Frederik Andersen’s game with the Marlies yesterday? Is he going to play for them again this weekend?
Keefe: He is going to play for them again tomorrow afternoon. In terms of his game yesterday, I watched the game as I do with most Marlies games when they don’t conflict with ours. I wasn’t overly focused on him and his play. His stint with the Marlies is really just about him getting back into game action and getting back to building up his workload to be able to play NHL games. That is what it is about.
He played yesterday. He got a practice in today. The plan is for him to play a full game tomorrow afternoon and re-assess it from there.
When you look back over the season, why have you been so consistent with keeping Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner together, especially early on when the second line wasn’t producing as much?
Keefe: There have been times where I have been a little bit tempted to try to mix it up a little bit, but I think there has just been such chemistry between the two. It brings some real consistency in terms of the threat of offense to our team. I think it really causes a lot of problems for the opposition to have to think about.
At the same time, I think I did get enough of a look that I am satisfied, whether it is the games that Auston missed and John played with Mitch, or shifts here and there throughout each game with John and Will with Auston. I am not feeling like I need to change things too much there to get that type of exposure to things.
I was more focused on just trying to work with the pairs of Auston & Mitch and Will & John. We have moved things around quite a bit on the left side of those lines. I just really felt comfortable with the chemistry of those pairs. I felt that, even if I go away from it for a little while, it would never be anything permanent.
I just didn’t feel like it was overly necessary. The results have been very positive on both fronts. I like what both pairs have brought for our team.
How do you plan to use your final three games with resting some of your regulars? Do you plan to play them in all three?
Keefe: I am only focused on Saturday’s game. I am not looking beyond that. We are going to take it one game at a time.
I will say, in terms of how I look at the last couple of weeks of the season, with the exception of the one back-to-back that we’ve played, the way the schedule is laid out is pretty favourable for us in terms of workload and rest. I am not overly concerned with the rest factor.
In fact, if anything, I am a little more concerned with a potentially large gap between our games and the start of playoffs, and increasing that gap if we were to sit anyone. Those kinds of things we are looking at.
There are a lot of other things we will consider — the health of the team and the health of the players. We don’t want anybody pushing through anything that is unnecessary at this stage. Other than those who aren’t playing, we have some bumps and bruises, but generally speaking, especially for those that are playing the biggest minutes, they are doing well and feeling good at this time.
You’ve added battle-tested players like Thornton and Simmonds up front and Brodie and Bogosian on defense. Has that effort to bring in those veterans exceed those expectations? Has it gone according to plan? How would you assess that?
Keefe: I would say it has gone to plan. We signed these guys with great expectations. We have great respect for what they have done throughout their careers. We felt strongly that it would be able to make an impact with our team.
I think they have delivered on that. I wouldn’t say they have exceeded anything necessarily, but they have delivered — both in their performance and in their personalities and what they bring to the team. They are really filling necessary holes for us in all regards, whether it is the personality of the team or the performance of the club on the ice.
Is there anything that has stood out to you that you like about Ben Hutton’s game?
Keefe: The first thing I liked is just his personality. He is another guy who is pretty easygoing. Things don’t rattle him or bother him too much. He just goes about his business. He is a good teammate and a good guy to have around in that sense.
He is a guy who has played a significant amount of time in the NHL. He has come in here and hasn’t played very much, and yet it hasn’t been a distraction or an issue. He went into the lineup and I thought played a really good game for us despite playing for a new team and not having played for quite a long time.
He moves the puck really well and makes a lot of good poised plays on the breakout. It is an area that we really value and need from our defensemen. I think an opportunity to get him more involved will serve him and our team well.
I would just say that you can tell he is a guy who has been around the league a significant amount of time here. He understands our situation despite not playing as much as he might like or what he has come to expect in other places.
I talked to him today. He is happy to get back in the lineup and show that he can help our team.
Are you a believer that momentum can carry from the end of the regular season to the playoffs? If so, what would you like to see your team do in the last stretch here to make sure it actually carries and helps you have success during the first round?
Keefe: I am a believer. With the way your team plays, you are trying to build confidence through the regular season — not just the last week, but over the course of the season.
It is something we have talked about from training camp: The work we put in through training camp and into the regular season should give us the confidence going into the playoffs that we are prepared, we’ve faced different situations, we’ve dealt with it, and we’ve played with enough consistency to know that we can just stay with our process and our plan to be able to find ways through difficult times that are inevitable in the playoffs.
That is more what I focus on: the big picture and what we have accomplished through 53 games here now. As we go into the final three, of course, you want to continue building positive momentum in that sense.
All of that said — whether it is the big picture, the small picture, playing well or not playing well — every team is going to start over. The statistics are going to go back to zero in the playoffs. Things are fresh. The environment is different. The game will be different. The competitiveness of the game will be different, and the styles of play will be a little bit different. In terms of rest, teams will be on a little bit more equal footing. In the regular season, all of that stuff bounces around.
We definitely want to build confidence and momentum with our team, but at the same time, we recognize that we are going to have to focus and look to go out and re-establish things when the playoffs begin.