Sheldon Keefe addressed the media after his team’s 6-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in the penultimate game of the exhibition season.
On the chemistry between Mitch Marner and Nick Ritchie:
I think it has been good. Mitch is a special player, so he develops chemistry quite quickly on his own. He finds ways to adapt his game and find people. He has a pretty strong confidence Nick is going to live around the net, and he did on that first goal to get us going there.
I thought it was really good. Those guys haven’t gotten a lot of game action. The centers have moved around. That has been a challenge, but it is good to see it. I thought both of those guys were really good, especially in the first half of the game. The second half of the game was a bit of a mess for both sides, but in the early part of the game, those guys were really good.
On Ilya Mikheyev’s game with Nylander and Tavares:
I thought in the first half of the game, he was really good and the line was really good right from the first shift of the game. They had a really good look. They skated well, moved the puck well, and played off of one another really well.
There were a lot of really good things happening. I thought the second half of the game was a bit of a throwaway for me with how it went, so I didn’t think much of anybody. Early in the game, those guys looked really good and confident.
On William Nylander as a penalty-killing option:
We are looking at it. We are trying him there. He penalty killed in the first game that he played for us as well. He has penalty killed throughout camp. He penalty killed when we played the Blue and White game the other day. It is something we are trying here.
We saw a lot of growth in Will’s game through the second half of last season and through the playoffs. With his commitment defensively, when he is focused and committed like he was, you see the instincts that he has and the good stick that he has — strong hands, strong stick, and the quickness to jump and read plays.
At the end of last season, we had talked a little bit about the thought that Willy might be able to kill penalties for us and give us some value there. Dean Chynoweth came in and we talked about that. He has had a similar experience with similar types of players — Aho, Teravainen, players like that in Carolina — and he was fully on board with giving Will some time there.
I like what [Nylander] has done with it. He has embraced it. He has done a good job.
Auston has great potential to kill penalties and dabbled a little bit in it last season. We didn’t have the runaway of a preseason to get a look at it and give him experience. We have tried to get John some reps — today, we sent him out for a d-zone faceoff on the kill.
With Kampf and Kase coming in, we have a lot of guys who can kill penalties for us. That is important with the way we want to kill and the philosophy that Dean has brought over here. It requires a lot of pressure, a lot of reads, a lot of quickness, speed, and energy. We are going to need a lot of people. That’s what we have been looking to accomplish here.
On balancing the benefits of using stars on the PK against the risk of injury:
That comes up a lot, but I think it is a little bit overblown in terms of the risk of blocking a shot. If you do a good job in areas of the game, there should be no shots. That is what we are going for. That is a big part of it.
You have some guys that are great shot blockers and that’s how they kill penalties. A lot of times, they are in the lanes and blocking shots because they haven’t done a good job up ice. They haven’t done a good job on entries. They didn’t get a clear on the faceoff.
With some of our top guys — Mitch, of course, being one — he doesn’t have an abundance of shot blocks in the time that he has killed penalties, but a lot of that is that he does a really good job of clearing the puck. When the other teams try to get in, they struggle to get in against him when he is out there.
Those are the things that we focus on. If you end up being in lands and blocking shots, there are probably mistakes made along the way there.
On the crackdown on cross-checking and if it might benefit Nick Ritchie in front of the net:
There are some advantages there. It remains to be seen how they call things in and around the net with crosschecks, box-outs, and things like that. So far, they have done a really good job on stuff in the corners and that piece of it. With stuff around the net, I think there is a lot of leeway there still with what I am seeing.
In other areas of the game, for sure. With a big guy like that, if you can’t use two hands, you can’t really lean on him. It is tough for the defender and a real advantage for a guy like Nick for sure.
And not just Nick, who is a guy who is big and strong. We have guys who are really quick and can really roll off checks really well. When they are not getting buried into the boards, that is a real advantage for us all the way through. I think it is a pretty healthy thing for the game.
On Kirill Semyonov’s camp:
We have played him a lot here and gave him an opportunity today. Right from day one of camp, I have liked his instincts. For a guy who is coming in, doesn’t know the language really well, and hasn’t had any time to adjust to the game over here, he picked things up very quickly in terms of structure. He makes very few mistakes from a structure standpoint. That is really positive. It is a real challenge with the language especially, but he has picked it up really quickly. It shows a high level of intelligence for me.
The biggest thing is how he has played with the puck. He has made a lot of really subtle plays that maybe don’t stand out in a game necessarily, but when you go back and watch his shifts and touches on video, there are a lot of positives things happening when he is there.
We gave him a really good opportunity today. I think he has done a really good job for us. Today, after two periods, his minutes got really high for a guy who played last night and was playing with Mitch and Ritchie today. That is a tough matchup — a lot of time against the Suzuki line.
I switched it in the third period more to just get Brooks, who hadn’t played very much, some of those opportunities to play there and manage Semyonov’s minutes a little bit better. But I have been really encouraged by what we have seen from him.
On Josh Ho-Sang signing an AHL deal:
I was really impressed with Josh and how he handled himself here all the way through the offseason into camp. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him [since the contract], but through the camp, whenever I’ve spoken with him, it’s just encouraging him with how he is handling himself, how he has played, and how he has worked. You can tell he has come here with a purpose of looking to improve his game and gain the trust of the organization and coaching staff.
He made some inroads here with us at the NHL level. We think he has got some areas he has to continue to grow in. Also, with that, he has to do the good things he did here for a longer period of time. That level of consistency is something we are asking for from all of our players, and in Josh’s case, that is something there.
For us, we keep him in the organization. We are going to continue to monitor him and give him opportunities. The Marlies are excited to have him. It’s a really good and healthy thing for us to have him around. We are excited to see how he continues to progress.
On Nick Robertson’s reassignment to the Marlies:
I haven’t had a chance to speak to a lot of the guys individually since they have been reassigned, so I don’t want to say too much. I do want that opportunity to speak to them myself.
I think a lot of those guys — the Robertsons — did a really good job through this camp. Our depth has improved significantly. When I look at it compared to where we were at a couple of seasons ago, where someone like Nick Robertson steps right into our lineup, now it is a harder team to make.
It is a positive sign for us. It also allows Nick the appropriate time to go down, work at his game, and continue to find a way to evolve his game offensively at the pro level. His work habits and the commitment that he has are really impressive for a young guy. He is another guy we will be watching very closely and we fully expect we will have him around at some point. We are going to need him.
Again, I will have a chance to speak with those guys individually once things settle a bit for us, but I was really happy with how our young guys performed. Here again tonight was another sign. We had a lot of our really good players playing tonight, but we had contributions all the way through. We have performed fairly well here through preseason on the backs of how a lot of these guys have performed who are now going to the Marlies.
It is a very good sign for us as an organization in terms of our depth, and it bodes well for the Marlies and their season ahead.
On Mitch Marner’s adjustment to the bumper role on the power play:
I think we have seen real progress. Today was the first real game action that it was together. I thought Ilya Mikheyev did a nice job in that spot, but with all respect to Ilya, he is not Auston Matthews. We think that is a significant piece that will really help that thing go.
As it relates to Mitch, he has those instincts. He jumps into spaces that are unexpected at the right times and creates looks and schemes that the opponent will struggle to plan for. That is what we are counting on. His instincts and his ability to improvise — in that spot, there is increased ability to do that in the middle of the ice because you can go to a lot of different places.
That is part of what we like when we drew this up in the offseason. We are encouraged by what we have seen, and of course, we are anxious and excited to see it continue to progress as we get Auston healthy, get him involved, and as we get playing for real.