Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs practice
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs practice

After practice on Monday, Sheldon Keefe discussed his decision to reunite Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews on a line, why he benched William Nylander late in the game in Buffalo, and the decision to rotate Timothy Liljegren out of the lineup for tomorrow’s tilt against the Nashville Predators.

November 15 Practice Lines

What was behind the decision to move Mitch Marner back next to Auston Matthews?

Keefe: As I looked at it, it is 10 games now that we have been through where those guys have played together. Especially when I focus on Auston and Will, I don’t think, at five on five, the connection has been there and the production has been there. Those guys individually have played well, but as I look at it, while they have played together through 10 games, they have connected for one goal, which was where Auston got a second assist on William’s goal in Philadelphia off of a skate. Aside from that, they have produced, but the lines have been different or they have been playing with different players when they have scored.

The line itself hasn’t really rolled the way we thought it might. I do think, between that connection and John and Mitch playing together, it’s really stabilized our team. Through that process, the individual players have found their games. I think we are in a spot where I would like to go back to what I intended at the start.

Auston, Ritchie, and Mitch is what we had started with. It didn’t go well. I think all three players, frankly, are in a different place right now with their games than where they were. We want to give it another run. We like how it sets things up underneath that.

Was there a reason why you didn’t think it quite clicked with Auston and William together?

Keefe: No, not one specific reason. It has been interesting because I do think the individual players have played well. But when I went through and looked at the chances Auston has generated, the chances that Will has generated, they haven’t necessarily involved each other. It just speaks to how great individually that they are, but the connection hasn’t been there. That is not to say that it won’t be revisited and won’t get a chance or it is not a good thing to go to at different times throughout a game.

The connection with Auston and Mitch is a very good one that has done a lot of great things for us last season. We think it can really help us. At the same time, with John, Will, and Alex Kerfoot — who has played really well with William, in particular — we want to give it a go.

We want to try some different things as a team. That is what you do as a team throughout the season to try to find the right mix and make sure you are utilizing different ideas. That is what we went through in Buffalo in trying some different things to see what it would look like for one night.

I have had this in mind for some time. We’ll just continue to give it time to play itself out. It is a good opportunity now to reset things.

Is it nice to know as you are making these adjustments, you are winning and learning, not losing and learning?

Keefe: I think it is huge for us. It just shows why we believe in this team. We can play games that aren’t perfect — and a lot of times are far from perfect — but we can be good enough in certain areas of our game — be it special teams, offensive execution, or goaltending —  and these different elements can really carry us to success. We have seen that.

The biggest difference is that a lot of things were not going well for us early. We had a couple of things going well, but not enough. Now, we have had more things going well for us, but there are still things we can do better. We have won games, but I don’t think we have controlled them as well as we would like to.

We have had some games where, from start to finish, we were outstanding, but we are trying to continue to refine our process. We are also continuing to find the right mix of our players — both our existing guys that have come back and also our players who have joined us new this season.

William Nylander did not play in the final minutes on Saturday. What led to that?

Keefe: Really, I just looked at how the game was going for us at that time. I just thought that defensively, the Matthews, Nylander, and Kase line was giving up a lot and was not producing much offensively. It was at a point in game where I had to make a decision to put some lines together that were going to give us a chance to hopefully win the game but certainly not allow us to lose the game. I had to make that decision. That is what I made.

It is not necessarily a reflection on Will in particular. It’s me having to make a call at that time. I thought Bunting, because of the fact that he hadn’t played much but had played well, could give us a little boost at that particular time. We made that decision.

If we got to overtime, Will was going to be the first guy over the boards in that situation. We just decided to make that switch for that part of the game.

You mentioned that consistency was the next step for him. Why is that such a challenge for all players to achieve night to night?

Keefe: That is the great question. I think it is just one of those things where part of it comes naturally to some guys — they are just naturally competitive and bring it all the time. Some guys need prodding. They need to be pushed. The same situation in the game maybe brings it out of them. Sometimes the coach brings it out of them. Sometimes they internally bring it.

I have talked to Will a number of times. He has made it clear to me that he is a guy who wants and needs to be pushed and challenged. He feels that he needs that. At times, that is the way it is going to go for him.

What we have seen from Will at times is a dominant player who is as good or better than anybody on the ice, who has carried us through some tough patches and produced at a high level. At other times, it is not as good. What we are trying to find with Will and all of our players is to make sure the difference between your best and your worst is not a massive gap.

I think that is really important as a player, but it is not an easy thing to get to. I certainly believe that William, through the last year — parts of last season and parts of this season — is starting to really close that gap.

Is Timothy Liljegren coming out tomorrow night on the blue line?

Keefe: Yeah, Timothy is going to come out. Again, it just kind of speaks to where we are at. We feel that we have seven defensemen who can and should play. We have to manage that. At the same time, with Sandin and Liljegren, it is important that — while we think both guys have played well, particularly together — we manage them appropriately.

I looked at Sandin’s situation. He has already played more games this season than he played last season. That is in any league. He didn’t play much in the AHL at all with his injury and the way the season went. He didn’t play much in the NHL.

He has played a lot of hockey, and I would say the same about Liljegren, recently. We are coming off of a very busy schedule. His play warranted that he stay in the games. But this is a good chance for him to take one night, ease the schedule a little bit, and give others the chance to go. He will certainly get himself back in.

You mentioned confidence in all three goalies on the Marlies. Are there any plans to switch it up as the week goes along?

Keefe: We are taking it a game at a time here with that. I think the experience that Joe got the other day is tremendous for him and his development. I am thrilled for him that we were able to get him a win. Every day that he is able to spend here is a good day for him and his development.

We do look at it and see guys pushing down there. Kallgren and Hutchinson came off of two great starts for themselves again and really helped the Marlies to two big wins on the road in Chicago. We have that happening. We just have to make sure we take it a day at a time and continue to monitor it. Kyle is really on that situation more than I am. We are just going to continue to prepare the team.