After the first day of on-ice training camp sessions, Sheldon Keefe discussed the battle for spots at the left wing, starting Nick Ritchie on Mitch Marner’s line, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren’s growth, and more.
Why do you like starting with a hard conditioning day to kick off the camp?
Keefe: It is a very difficult thing. I recognize that. I like just leading with it. We want to get ahead. The season is hard. Winning is hard. Playing in the league is hard. Put the hard work first.
There is no best time to do it. It is a very difficult thing, but I like the way it’s set up. We did the same thing last season. We gave the guys time to recover and went back.
In terms of what I am looking to see, it is just effort. You are looking to see effort. It is more of a mental drill than anything. The physical piece, of course, is there, but the mental side is the most challenging piece as you are going through that and questioning yourself as to just how much you have left.
I liked the guys’ effort. I liked the way the guys responded coming out of that and going into practice. I thought we still got good work done. It was a good day for us.
Josh Ho-Sang was talking a lot about his journey as a player. When you know someone like that has a lot of skill, what do you look for as he is trying to grab a spot on the team?
Keefe: There are a couple of things. In terms of the skill, you need to be able to show you can execute and use that skill at this level. That is the first thing. Probably even one step before that, I guess, is the foundation that you have in your game that gets you even on the ice. How do you compete? How can you play inside structure? How do you play with your teammates?
Those are the kinds of things, with all young players who are trying to crack the league, you are looking for. You get a real good foundation in their game, and then can you still execute at the highest level while still having those details in your game?
Not just him but a lot of others here are trying to crack the lineup. That is where they are at. We have had those discussions with them individually. Collectively, as a group, we talked about that last night as well.
What does it mean to have Jason Spezza back in the room for another season?
Keefe: He has really established himself here in the last couple of seasons as a really key member of our leadership team. It is not just who he is and what he says and all of those kinds of things. It is what he does every day and the work he puts in during the offseason — not just with our NHL players, but with the young prospects.
With the character that he has and the experience that he has, he is just a real great asset for the coaching staff, for the team in general, and for the players that are navigating their way through their NHL careers. It is nice to have a guy like him.
The other side of it, of course, is that you have to be able to play on the ice. He is certainly proving he can do that as well. He has really established himself a real nice role with us.
What is the biggest challenge for Rasmus Sandin to establish himself as a full-time NHLer in your mind?
Keefe: I think just the level of consistency in his play, and the confidence and execution to be who he is offensively and make his plays. And yet, as I just talked about, there is also having the foundation in his game. He has to be there and be solid and reliable every day.
He is off to a really good start. I thought he had a real nice day today. We have seen real nice progress in not just him but Timothy Liljegren in terms of their body, physically how they have come here, and some of the evaluations that we have done leading up to it.
Watching the skate today, both guys have taken significant steps from where they were a year ago — I say a year ago, but I was reminded it was only nine and a half months or whatever it has been. They have made progress from where they were, and that is a great step.
Is it by design to have Sandin with Brodie and Liljegren with Muzzin? A veteran with two of the guys you are hoping will take a step?
Keefe: Yeah, for sure. We wanted to utilize that veteran presence. At the same time, as they go through camp, a lot of the times, Muzzin is matched up against some of our better players on the other side. In the drills, you are competing head to head with better players and more established NHLers.
Once the exhibition games start, we are going to get them reps there as well. At the same time, you are playing against opponents who are better players. It just made a lot of sense to me as I was mapping it all out and planning it.
Like I said, we are going to try some different things. That is certainly one of them with those two guys.
You have some new faces on the left side. What are you looking for from the Nick Ritchies, the Michael Buntings, the Josh Ho-Sangs, and the Nikita Gusevs as they look to decide their spots on the team?
Keefe: We are looking for somebody to really grab hold of the opportunities, first of all. These new players coming in, you have to give them some time to get comfortable here, to recognize the system and what we are asking them to do. At the same time, we are going to be playing games for real here in three weeks or so. Those positions are going to be filled.
We have laid it out here now and given guys different looks and opportunities. You just expect them to take advantage of it. Each player that you mentioned there, whether it is Bunting or Ritchie, have great skill sets. They have had their own successes in the league and are coming into a new organization here and re-establishing themselves.
Ritchie is coming off of a good season where he scored a lot offensively. Bunting came out of the American league and scored at a very high rate. His confidence is high. You are expecting those guys to come in and grab ahold of the opportunities that they get.
Whether it is others coming in and trying out for us for the first time, or players who have been here for the last number of years, there is a lot of competition for those positions.
What went into with putting Nick with Mitch in that spot just to start? What is his potential to stay in that spot?
Keefe: The potential is strong, but as I said, there is great competition there. There is the matter of other players competing for those spots and also just how the fit is. We like some of the elements that Nick can bring there in terms of his size, his skill set, his ability to play around the net, and the physicality and presence that he brings. We like a lot of those different elements.
We are going to try to give that some time to grow and see how that goes. As I said, we have a lot of hungry people that would love an opportunity to play there.