After practice on Monday, Sheldon Keefe discussed keeping his pairings together with Timothy Liljegren next to Rasmus Sandin and Justin Holl as the seventh defenseman, Liljegren and Sandin’s development, Michael Bunting’s fit next to Auston Matthews, and the challenge against the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday night.
Leafs lines at practice Nov. 1
— David Alter (@dalter) November 1, 2021
What did you see from the last game that made you decide to keep the defense pairings together today?
Keefe: I just thought that the D core as a whole played a lot better. I thought Timothy Liljegren, in particular, had a really strong game. For those reasons, we wanted to keep it going and get another look at it.
What have you seen from Liljegren’s game in the limited sample that appears improved from previous seasons?
Keefe: It is just increased confidence. Confidence when he goes into battles, when he is closing in coverage, confidence with the puck in the offensive zone — those are the things you are really looking for. Is he ending plays defensively? Is he keeping plays moving offensively? I thought he did a good job of that.
As I said, we want to give him another chance here. It is difficult when you are coming in and out of the lineup and sitting for long periods. We recognize that. We feel like he has earned another opportunity to stick in.
Mitch Marner was saying in these last few games, he has kind of gone back to having fun and being loose. Is it easier said than done when he puts that much pressure on himself?
Keefe: It certainly is easier said than done. A lot of what these players do is easier said than done. The actual work that has to happen on the ice to deliver is a difficult task at the NHL level no matter how talented you are. But he certainly seems like he is in that place.
He looks free to me. He is just out there doing his thing. That is two games now that he has looked that way. He has an extra bounce in his step on the ice. He is extra poised and patient with the puck, waiting for plays to develop and then executing.
It is not a coincidence that when you put together a good process like that and are feeling good, the puck bounces your way and you get a goal. That is just the way things go. That is why you just preach focusing on what you can control, the details, competing, and letting your skills take over from there. Good things start to happen.
Can he use his goal as a jumping-off point?
Keefe: I think so for sure. Even though it is not the type of goal that you are visualizing going into a game, once it happens, all of a sudden you are not pressing as much. You are not looking at a zero sitting in the goal column. All of those things matter. As much as you try to focus on other things, it is natural when you have produced your entire life and you are counted on to produce for your team now. You think about it.
To get that out of the way is good. More importantly to me, the other areas of his game were so good that it was the bonus that you earn through that. It was certainly nice to see the line was outstanding for us from start to finish in the game. To get the production in the third period like they did was terrific. They have been doing lots of really good things for us for two games now.
Has anything been said to Justin Holl, who took a long road to the NHL and finds himself on the outside looking in at least in the short term?
Keefe: Just to remain resilient, keep working, and wait for your opportunity to get back in. He is a guy who has taken a long road to get to the NHL. It has been a long while since he has been a scratch like this. I may be mistaken, but I don’t think in my time here that he has been a scratch at all. That is through him establishing himself as a player, doing really well with the opportunity he was given a few seasons ago, and really running with it.
Now, he is in a spot where his play opened the door for Timothy Liljegren to go in, and he performed well. That is the nature of the beast. That is how it works. When he was a player who was a scratch all the time and was waiting for his opportunity patiently, he probably felt at times he deserved it but didn’t get it. Liljegren, I am sure, is feeling similar in that sense, and he is getting his chance.
That is kind of the way it goes. That is healthy for a team. Even though the player doesn’t enjoy it when they are going through it, it is healthy for our team. Ultimately, as we have seen in Holl’s case, when he did get his chance, he took his opportunity and ran with it. We expect more of the same when he does get back in.
What is the key for Rasmus Sandin in order to defend well in the NHL?
Keefe: Positioning is a big part of it, timing, the competitive pieces, knowing how to play off of different players of different sizes, speeds, and statures in the NHL. For a guy like him, he can’t play everyone the same. He doesn’t have the leverage or the strength to be able to compete against some of the bigger people. That doesn’t mean that he can’t time it well, get in with a good stick, and use his body to stop the progression. Against smaller guys, he can assert himself physically and win those battles. We have seen a ton of that.
Those are big pieces of it. Confidence as well is a big one. It allows you to stay up and close your gap — all of those different things. Those are the pieces we look for from him defensively.
Does the amount of time they have played together with the Marlies help give you confidence in putting that pairing together?
Keefe: It doesn’t matter necessarily to me whether they have had that or not, but it is a bonus. It is a nice thing. It gives you extra comfort as a coach when you have seen them play together with the Marlies and even in their time here.
There is the fact that they have that and can play off of each other well, and also just the relationship they have off the ice. They are good friends and countrymen. I think that stuff is important, especially for young players that are trying to find a level of comfort.
Liljegren mentioned keeping passes simple and that there is more space to make a fancier play at the AHL level. Have you noticed him simplifying it?
Keefe: I think so. A lot of that is just the pace of the NHL. How quickly players close on you is different than what you are used to seeing. Also, at the same time, when you make a mistake at the NHL level, with the skill set of the players on the other side, they are more likely to capitalize on your mistakes. At the American league level, the skill sets aren’t the same and you may be able to recover a lot better.
Those are the kinds of things where you start to recognize how important it is to move the puck efficiently. In his case, it is just on his stick and off his stick. At the same time, as we have seen in the offensive zone, when he gets his head up and knows there is time, he is walking the line and getting to the middle of the ice. He is doing things there that show a level of poise and maturity to his game, too. That is all part of it to be able to find that balance.
What is the adjustment for Michael Bunting to play in the top six of the lineup?
Keefe: I think it is a big jump. He spent time there last season and played with good players in Arizona. It is not entirely new to him. He is a confident guy and he kind of knows who he is and what he brings. I don’t think in that sense it is a huge adjustment.
At the same time, when you are adjusting to playing with high-end teammates to begin with and you are still yourself trying to find your way in the league, there are some added layers there. He is a guy we need to stay on in terms of video and talking to him and reassuring him.
I think he has done a really nice job. His work ethic is undeniable. Structurally, there are some things there, and in some of his little plays with the puck with his execution level, to just trust his skill set and let plays develop. Those are the kinds of things you are looking for over time.
He has found ways to produce. He really has earned the opportunity he has gotten with how he has worked and competed since day one of camp.
Is there a tendency for players who play with Auston Matthews and William Nylander to be more deferential at times?
Keefe: I think that is natural. You are going to do that. That is why it is a bit of an art to be able to play up. It is natural for you to look at it and say, “Those players are elite, and anybody could play with them.” That is absolutely not the case.
There are some players who have a level of simplicity to their game that when they play up in the lineup, all of a sudden, they get away from that and suddenly feel like they need to defer to others or find the play. Instead of being really straightforward, it becomes a challenge, and then you end up getting in their way and disrupting them and all of that.
It is an art for sure. Each player adjusts in their own way to it. Whether Bunting was playing with John or Auston, he has done a good job with it here, but it is still something we are working him through. I think he has another level to get to.
How do you prepare for a Vegas team that is starting to round into form and has been dealing with some injuries themselves?
Keefe: It is what you come to expect when you play Vegas. It so happens it is the first time for me as a coach. You’ve watched them and admired how they have played since they came into the league. They are a team with lots of energy and pace. They are structurally sound. They work really hard to close space both ways — both on the forecheck and the way they backcheck and track defensively.
They have elite players. They do have some people out. We don’t know precisely what their lineup will look like, but they have, by and large, the core of their defense and their core at center ice. There is some real strength for them. They are a team that plays just a really sound team game with all five guys no matter who is in the lineup. You are going to be in for a game against a team that is not going to give you a lot.