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

After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed rebounding from the team’s recent 1-2-1 stretch, the struggles of the Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl pairing of late, Ondrej Kase joining the top line with Auston Matthews, Ilya Mikheyev’s progress towards a return, and the plan in net this weekend.

Practice Lines – December 10

What is the game tape telling you from the past few games that can help you adjust for Chicago?

Keefe: Just speeding up our game. I have found we have played slower in the neutral zone and have tried to complicate things in the neutral zone when we don’t need to or it is not the time. We are just out of sync that way and are forcing plays when we shouldn’t.

When we have played really quickly — moved our feet, moved the puck, forechecking — that is when our game has really been rolling. We have gotten away from that a little bit. There is a fatigue element to that because it is a lot of work to do that.

We just feel like that it has crept into our game. We took a day off the other day. That is what you get in the NHL: one day to recharge the batteries, and then you have to get right back at it. That is the nature of our schedule.

I thought we had a really good start yesterday, and then we weren’t able to sustain it. I don’t think it was from a lack of effort or anything of that nature. I actually think we defended quite well in the game, but when you look at it and say, “the defense fell apart,” it was the result of offensive play — our play with the puck, our decision-making, and our structure offensively. That is where we are looking to get back on track.

How do you learn to deal with the fatigue and get through those tough periods in the schedule?

Keefe: I think it is about really trusting the process and purpose you play with as a team and the things that make us successful. It becomes harder to do when you get tired, whether that is because of the schedule or whether it’s within the shift and the shift wears you down; you are in the back half of the shift, and you need players to really be diligent, whether it is with the puck or off of the puck. You have to stay switched on in those moments. That is a big piece of it.

It is a difficult thing. The schedule has been challenging. But how much of that is really a factor? How much of it is just our team continuing to need to improve in these areas? You tend to lean towards the fatigue factor when you are coming off of the road and things like that. But we took a day off, and that is what you get in the NHL — some time to recover, but you have to get right back to it and show improvement.

I thought we started really well, but I thought we really invited Tampa into the game. A lot of those goals were self-inflicted. That is what we have to clean up. It was very similar in Winnipeg.

Before, you mentioned something along the lines of Ondrej Kase not being comfortable on the top line. Now, he is up there with Matthews and Bunting. What has led you to believe he can fit well there?

Keefe: Comfortable is not the right word; it was out of sync is the biggest thing. He didn’t have any time spent with Auston there. A lot of people would think that if you get elevated to play with a player of Auston’s calibre, it is an easy thing and a good thing, but it throws you out of rhythm, and it is difficult for it not to get in your head.

I talked to Kase this morning. I just feel like he is in a really good place right now. He is coming off of a great game last night with two goals. He also just played a really good, consistent game. The reality of our situation is that despite the fact that we like him playing with Kampf and the way that has gone, with no Marner and no Spezza, we need to get a little more out of everybody. That includes Kase. We are going to make that switch.

Is Ilya Mikheyev nearing a return?

Keefe: It was really his first full practice with us. It was a brief practice. We are just trying to get him back to speed. His bone and everything have healed very well. He is going to go and have another appointment with a specialist today — the same specialist that performed the surgery. He’ll just continue to progress.

I think it is a strength issue right now. We will continue to monitor that. When that gets to an acceptable level, he will be ready to play. In the meantime, he is going to continue to work out here to stay sharp.

How about Petr Mrazek?

Keefe: Our intent is for him to play tomorrow. Today was another full practice for him. As long as he gets through tomorrow’s morning skate and is still feeling like he is right now, the plan would be to activate him and play him tomorrow. He has to get to that point.

What are you hoping to see from Justin Holl as he looks to get his season back on track?

Keefe: The biggest thing is getting back to his game, which for me, includes utilizing his speed and length defensively to close on people and defend that way. Also, offensively, it’s using his speed and reach to get out of trouble, move the puck up to the forwards quickly and efficiently.

Right now, I think he is in his head a little bit in terms of what is the right play at the right time. That tends to happen when the season isn’t going the way that you would like it to.

Like we have talked about and established, he is an important player for us. We have moved the pairings around a little bit throughout the season and did again today, as we did last night. It doesn’t change the fact that he is an important guy for us that takes on a lot of difficult assignments. He plays a lot of difficult minutes for us. He was doing so when our team was playing at its best.

We are taking more of a balanced approach here with Sandin being out, but it doesn’t change the fact that Hollsy is an important guy.

When things don’t go well for a guy like Jake Muzzin last night, is it less of a concern knowing he is a veteran who has been consistent in the past?

Keefe: Yeah, he is a veteran guy. He knows his game. He is also very good at assessing his own game. He knows when he is not at his best.

He is another guy whose job is difficult. He was at 25 minutes last night in a game where he is not having his best night. We still have to keep putting him over the boards and playing him against tough competition while killing penalties and doing all of those things.

Those are hard minutes, especially when the schedule has been what it has been. He is a guy who is always over 20 minutes. We ask a lot of him — and Justin Holl, for that matter.

With Muzz, because I know that he knows and I know how much he cares, he is going to do his best to make sure he is prepared to bounce back the next time out. That is really what you want.

What are your thoughts on Alex Steeves and Kristians Rubins through two games?

Keefe: I think they have been okay. They have come in and today was their first practice with us as a team. It is tough to just show up and play, particularly in Steeves’ case because he missed all of camp with no preseason games. Rubins has been around longer in the organization and is a little more comfortable around here.

Playing last night’s game is a lot more difficult than playing against the team in Columbus and just the nature of the game with the way that it went.

I thought Rubins had some shifts that were tough for him yesterday, but he still did some good things. I think he ended up with seven hits in the game. Physically, he is involved, and in both games, he has done a good job of getting the puck to the net.

Steeves is a good, smart player. We got behind in the game last night, so I sort of lost that fourth line a little bit. We like what we have seen from him as well.