After practice, Sheldon Keefe discussed Michael Bunting’s strong start to preseason and pest-like qualities, the Blue and White game on Friday night, Rasmus Sandin’s camp so far, and Nick Ritchie’s potential fit next to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Kurtis Gabriel called Michael Bunting a greasy rat the other day. Do you see that in him as well? What do you like about having that element in your lineup?
Keefe: One thing I know about Michael Bunting, in the time I have known him, is that he usually leaves the game as one of the most hated players on the ice. I have come to expect that from him in terms of reactions he gets from other teams.
I think that is a positive thing. He is not out there to make friends. He is out there to score goals and help his team win. He makes no apologies for how he goes about it. I like that about him.
I am really happy that he has gotten the results he has gotten in his first few games. It allows his confidence to grow and settle in here with us. It is obviously an important time of year for a player like him who doesn’t have a great deal of experience at the NHL level.
He certainly is a guy who makes no friends on the ice. That is part of what makes him who he is in terms of the hunger and competitiveness that he has around the net. He is always looking to get an edge on you.
What is it about Bunting that allows him to lean into the identity?
Keefe: He made the OHL as a late bloomer. He is a guy who took a very unconventional route, especially here in the GTA. He played AA hockey for a long time. He was undrafted until he was 18. He has a chip on his shoulder in terms of how he has come up through the hockey ranks.
Some of it is just his own natural personality off of the ice. He plays with a lot to prove every night. He is out there to make the best of every opportunity he can. I like those qualities about him. That is what makes you believe a player like him always has a chance.
Here he is in the NHL being a bit of a late bloomer yet again. He has taken some time to get to this point, but it is all through determination, belief in yourself, hard work, and ultimately, competitiveness.
Competitiveness is the ultimate foundation. If you combine the talent and ability he has around the net, the hunger, and the fire that he has, it is a real nice combination. Those are the kinds of guys you don’t want to bet against.
Bunting was mentioning that he remembers taking on the mission of getting Mitch Marner off of his game in the OHL. Do you have memories of that?
Keefe: Not specifically, but as I said, I know that is part of how Bunts plays. He takes it upon himself to do those types of things. You want him to do it intelligently, with purpose, and not be a distraction to him or the team — not get away from the fact that he is a good player in his own right and has lots of things he needs to focus on and take care of on the ice shift-to-shift.
I don’t want to make too big of a deal of that factor because he is a good player. He has a very important role and opportunity here with us to start with. He is making the best of it thus far. As we know, the games here in preseason are going to get more difficult, and of course, the regular season is going to be a whole other level. It is about the level of consistency we are looking for from him, and not getting carried away one way or the other with anything else that might be happening.
How tough is it to balance that? Early in Brad Marchand’s career, he had to learn how to balance skill against being a super pest.
Keefe: I think it is a process. It is about not being a distraction to yourself or the team. You have certain things you need to prioritize in your game. You need to walk that line, if you will. He took a penalty yesterday where I thought the emotions got the best of him in that moment.
You also have to expect sometimes that is going to happen. If you have a guy who is playing on the edge, you expect them to make a mistake and slip up here or there. You would prefer that over the guy that you have to push and prod to bring that.
We knew, or certainly I knew, that we were getting a competitor who has a lot to prove. As we all know, he had opportunities outside of the Maple Leafs where he could’ve made more money. He is a guy who hasn’t made a great deal of money in his career to this point. He is coming here betting on himself, and he is making good on it so far.
What is the latest on Auston Matthews’ timeline?
Keefe: He is just continuing to progress. The fact that we continue to see him out there every day means we haven’t had any setbacks in that sense. It is just about building up the strength to the point where he is confident in receiving passes, leaning into shots, and of course, faceoffs and contact. He is just continuing along his progression. The fact that we have seen him out every day without setbacks is a good thing.
Is the Blue and White game more than just an intrasquad game for some guys but a last chance to make an impression?
Keefe: For a lot of players that are here… How many guys — 20-23 players — are going to make the team out of camp? Everybody here should be approaching every practice, intrasquad, and preseason game like it is more than what it is.
There are established players here. You know who they are and they know who they are. There are also guys who are in a fight here for spots and for ice time. Everything that they’re doing, they are being evaluated on.
It is as though it is a seventh preseason game for us in that matter. We have a lot of opportunities for guys to show themselves and do well. The game itself is going to be a two-half game. The third period is going to be entirely special teams. The teams will be different for the third period than what they were in the first two.
Have you seen anything from Rasmus Sandin that suggests he is really ready to take on a top-six role?
Keefe: I think it is too early to say that, but I saw a lot of progression in his game from his first preseason game to Wednesday night. The last game was an important one for me to evaluate because we left a lot of our top defensemen — our most experienced defensemen — back home. Guys like Rasmus, Filip Kral, and Liljegren played a lot more in different situations than they would otherwise. I thought Rasmus handled it really well. That was a really important step for him.
Also, Ottawa had a lot of their best people not play as well. They also had some very good players who played. I thought he did a very good job there. That is important.
In the Blue and White game, the guys are going to go head-to-head. It is a little bit easier to sort of see the separation when they are on the ice at the same time. As you know, we haven’t done a great deal of scrimmaging here. We will get a chance to see that. We have more preseason action next week, and we will see how things go from there.
I think it is too early to say just exactly how much there has been progression from one season to the next. I have already spoken, in regards to Rasmus and Timothy, about how they look stronger to me. I have seen that for sure. In terms of how that translates on the ice, I think it is a bit early for that.
You mentioned that David Kampf helps you manage the minutes of the top lines a little bit more. Are you looking to reduce minutes from your top guys, or more about the deployment?
Keefe: Probably a bit more of the redeployment, but we will see how it goes. A lot of it depends on what is happening in the game. We want to be able to get more minutes out of our bottom six. It is something we would really like to do.
It is a dangerous thing we have to be careful of because our top people are major difference makers for us. We have to give them the opportunity to make the difference, but the more depth we can utilize throughout the lineup — there are great benefits to that.
I am excited to see it play out here. It is too early to see how it will go, but from what I have seen in the early going here, I think we are going to have a lot of opportunities that haven’t been there as much in the last couple of seasons.
Is there anything surprising about Nick Ritchie’s game so far?
Keefe: I wouldn’t say so. Nick is another guy, like Bunting, that I have coached before. I only coached him for a short amount of time — we got him at the trade deadline in Sault Ste. Marie — but like anyone you have coached, your eye is drawn to them a little bit more when you see them on TV, or if their game happens to be on, you’re going to tune in a bit closer. You are going to follow the highlights a little bit closer because you are connected to the player.
I am pretty comfortable with Nick and his game. Not a lot that he does surprises me. I think, for the size that he is and the physicality that he brings, for those who don’t know him well, you are going to be surprised how good his hands are, his shot is, how good he is at making plays in tight spaces — things traditional big men like him aren’t strong at — but he is a guy who can do that. That is where I think he can complement Auston and Mitch really well.
With Mitch, we are seeing it here right now. We haven’t had a lot of time with Auston here yet, but there are a lot of those elements Nick brings from a skill perspective that does surprise you.