Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach

After practice on Monday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the imminent returns of Ilya Mikheyev and Travis Dermott to the lineup, bringing Brett Seney and Carl Dahlstrom on the road trip, the postponement of the game in Calgary, and the challenge against McDavid and Draisaitl’s Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night.

Practice Lines – December 13

Are you anticipating having Travis Dermott or Ilya Mikheyev available tomorrow?

Keefe: We’ll know tomorrow. Both had good days in practice today. The medical team will have to get with them tomorrow morning to see how they are doing. They will make a decision.

Our schedule has obviously changed a bit here now. It will just be a decision of whether to play them tomorrow when they feel good and ready to go or if we give them a little bit more time. I’d still call them day-to-day at this point.

Does the postponement of the Calgary game change the plan in net?

Keefe: Our approach was going to be one day at a time. Tomorrow, it will be Jack and we will take it from there.

What is Nick Ritchie’s status?

Keefe: Nick is sick. At this point, it’s non-Covid. He has been testing negative. Because of his symptoms and such, he didn’t travel with us yesterday. He is not on the trip right now. We continue to monitor him back home. He will join us when he is feeling better, but he won’t be available tomorrow.

With Ritchie out, do you stick with Alex Steeves or bring in more experience?

Keefe: A lot of it is going to depend on how the lines shake out and whether or not Mikheyev is going to be available and what we are going to do there.

We changed the lines up a little bit today — more so to keep Mikheyev involved and look at some different things, including the possibility of having Steeves at center. We just wanted to look at it today. It is not necessarily reflective of what tomorrow will look like. Until the lineup is set, we are not going to make that determination.

With Seney coming in, we think he is another guy who had a good camp with us. He has experience and lots of speed and skill. He has been a tremendous player for the Marlies this season. They are just raving about his attitude and his performance down there.

Coming out west, we thought it was a good opportunity to go with a little more experienced guys in Seney’s case — and with Carl Dahlstrom, for that matter. We thought coming out west with a Dermott return imminent on some point on this trip, we could get Rubins back and settled with the Marlies. They are playing at home on Wednesday. We just went with the more experienced guys here now with Seney, Dahlstrom, and Biega.

What does getting Mikheyev back mean for the group and the lineup?

Keefe: Big for our depth, obviously. He is a guy who does a lot for us.

He is a big penalty killer. We have been thin on penalty killers this season. That has been exposed a bit more here now with Marner not playing in the last little bit. We didn’t have Kase for a little while — same kind of thing. When one of your penalty killers takes a penalty, it has been quite thin. Having another guy who can take on that will be very good for us there.

He was having a big camp for us. We were looking to find ways to expand his role this season. He was taking advantage of every opportunity we were giving him through camp and preseason. We were excited about what the season is going to bring for him.

This has been a big setback for him, obviously. He has worked hard to get himself ready to go. It is going to take him some time to get back to game level and what we have come to expect from him, but he is an important piece of our team.

He does a lot of things for us. We are going to give him an opportunity on the power play as well when he gets up and running here. With no Marner and no Spezza, it is good timing for that. Whether it is back tomorrow or back on the weekend, we think his return is imminent. The guys are happy to get him back in the mix.

Where do you think he can still grow offensively?

Keefe: He had no shortage of scoring opportunities. With his speed and things, he generates looks that way. It is a matter of a little more poise at the net, a little more deception with his shot, and a little bit more consistently getting himself on the interior of the rink.

Because of his speed, he tends to get in behind guys a little bit, but you have to really fight for the little extra few fight of ice that changes the angle on those shots — those kinds of things

Really, he just has to stay with it is the big thing. I thought he was unlucky last season. I don’t know how many breakaways he had, but he didn’t get one of them to fall for him.

Those kinds of things, if luck turns a little bit, all of a sudden, confidence grows and things start to fall a little bit more. Most importantly, he is a guy who shift-to-shift is very good and effective for us. We can play him against anybody and play him with anybody. It helps us on the penalty kill. He is reliable late in games. With all of those kinds of things, he makes us a better team.

Your team had some great games against Edmonton last year and built a rivalry. Do you think we will see any carry-over from how you played against this team and the emotions of those games?

Keefe: I think there will be some of that. It is way different this year, obviously, because you are not competing in the standings to the same degree. Last season, we were two teams at the top of the division competing throughout. We had those added elements. That is not at play here.

Any time you play against a team like this with the calibre of players that they have, it gets your attention. Our team needs to play better. If that is something that gets us going, that would be great.

I think it is a different situation this season than what it was last. Most importantly, we are just going to have to tighten up our game and play better.

What do you miss most about not having Zach Hyman?

Keefe: He was just a very consistent player every day. Having him around, you knew what you were going to get and what to expect. It is nice to have those guys.

We are very fortunate this season when we look at guys that we have added like Bunting and Kase at forward and what they have brought. We feel like we have got that now — two guys who are consistent in their effort, their competitiveness, and their skill set. We have been able to add some pieces like that. That is what you have come to expect with Zach Hyman.

What is it about McDavid and Draisaitl that separates them from the other players in the NHL?

Keefe: I think each player is different and unique. If you look at McDavid and Draisaitl, with their skill sets, it goes without saying that the speed element of McDavid is one of a kind. That creates a lot of challenges that way.

Draisaitl is a versatile player who can pass, shoot, and is good defensively. He is just a threat in so many different ways. Just those unique skill sets — they’re really good at everything, but they excel in what makes them unique.

That is a challenge, of course. Our biggest thing is that we just have to stay out of the penalty box and make them play at five on five as much as we can where we can have layers of defenders, do our job there, and play on offense as much as we can. Make them defend.

That is something that last season, playing as much as we did, gives that experience of how we need to play against them. We did have success with it, but it is a consistency thing. If you make a mistake on one shift, they make you look bad on it. We experienced that as well last season.

That is really it. Our focus, as much as we know what they have on the other side, is on our game. We think we can play better. Despite the fact that we have gotten some wins and some positive results, we haven’t played to the level that we were in November. We want to get that back on track as we have come onto the road here.

With the postponement of the game on Thursday, does your concern level rise?

Keefe: The concern level has risen — not just in this case, which is a direct impact on us and our schedule. There have been enough teams shut down or just one or two or three cases around the league per team. I haven’t looked like the numbers or anything like that, but it seems like it has happened this season more frequently than it did even last.

Last year, there were some teams that had large outbreaks, but in terms of impacting the entire league, I feel like it has been prominent. It has gotten our attention, for sure. Obviously, everyone has been vaccinated, and you have that peace of mind, but at the same time, it has an impact on the season and whether the games are canceled or not. Players are unavailable. That in and of itself impacts a season.

There are the health impacts of it. There are the competitive elements of it. There are lots of reasons to continue to be mindful that we are in a pandemic. We do what we can to remain healthy, do our part for our communities, and do our part for our team to stay healthy and available.