After practice on Thursday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the battle for lineup spots on the bottom pairing of the defense, the goal of developing a checking line that can score, Auston Matthews’ status, and more.
Now that Auston Matthews is wearing the red jersey, what does that mean? Ho would you sum up where he stands in his progress?
Keefe: I would say it is probably less significant than you think. The red jersey wasn’t that big of a deal. He was still doing everything, playing hard, and in all the battles and such. I don’t think it is a significant step. He has had no setbacks, and he will continue to push. Today, by far, would’ve been the longest session he has had. Obviously, he was right there until the end. In fact, I saw him doing a little bit extra himself afterward, getting some extra shots off. All of that is very positive.
Matthews will be going to the Olympics — one of many Leafs players. What do you think the experience might do for your players that participate?
Keefe: There are all sorts of positives that come with it. Whether you are a lock like Auston and you are preparing yourself mentally for it and are going to benefit from the experience, or if you are a guy who is pushing, challenging, and wanting to make a team and show well, all of those things have guys a little more focused for those that know that they are on the radar of various nations.
That is all really good. Of course, it is a fantastic event. It is fair to say everybody in hockey — fans, players, media alike — are excited for the event.
How would you assess Timothy Lilgren’s camp so far:
Keefe: I think he has done a nice job. We have put him in different situations, obviously, and paired him with different guys through camp. We are trying to put him with a more experienced partner that we feel like gives him an opportunity and a chance to be comfortable. I think he has done a really good job.
Now, we are down to one group, and we have all the NHL players on the ice. It is important for him to maintain a really good level through the practices here this week especially. Today, I wanted to see how he did and how he handled it. I haven’t really disgested the whole thing yet or talked it through.
Lily is an important guy for us in the organization. I have said that for a long time. I have been happy with how he has progressed.
How do you think Travis Dermott has shown so far through camp?
Keefe: I think he has done a good job. He got banged up the other day. We wanted to play him, and we were considering playing him in both games last week. We didn’t get as much of a look as we wanted, both with him and the partners we wanted to play with him. We didn’t get a chance to see that. That was a little disappointing for us, but it’s the way that it goes. Now he is just going to continue to push through this next little phase of camp before we play for real.
For Saturday’s game, is it going to be really close to the NHL lineup for opening night, or is it going to be a case of sprinkling in guys on the bubble?
Keefe: I think it will probably be a mix of both, but certainly, it is going to strongly resemble what the opening night lineup will look like.
Are you looking to create a third or fourth line that can shut down but also produce a little offense?
Keefe: Sure, that would be lovely. That is the goal of every team. You are trying to do that. No matter what the roles are of players on our team, we want them to score and put them into positions to score — to practice scoring and work at the offensive side of the game.
David Kampf is an example of a guy who came in here with good defensive instincts — he knows exactly what his priority is and what he needs to do — but he is a guy who we want to produce more. We want to put him in spots to do that, and keep evolving and developing his game. It goes all the way through our lineup.
Do you envision Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin, and Travis Dermott competing on the third pairing and rotating?
Keefe: I do. In terms of rotation, I don’t know about that so much. Those guys have been competing for all the way through camp, as has Alex Biega, Dahlstrom, Kral. These guys have been competing for those positions.
I think it is pretty well established who our top-four guys are despite the fact that we have split them up and such — we were trying to give others an opportunity, because we don’t know what the future brings and we are also trying to continue to develop guys to find another level in their game.
It has been very clear that there is a healthy competition happening there.
Is your excitement level growing with each passing day for the start of the season? Are you counting it down in terms of six days, five days…
Keefe: I am aware of what is coming and what we are preparing for, but really, what we are asking our players to do, and our coaching staff has to lead the way in this department, is to focus on each day as it comes.
It is very cliche, but it really is the most important thing: Let’s focus on what we can control while we can control it. We are here today after a good work day, and that’s exactly what we have asked the guys to do: Focus on getting good work in. They did that. We will just continue along the path. Whatever the calendar brings, we will be ready for it.