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

After practice on Thursday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the team’s concern level about the Covid outbreaks around the league, Morgan Rielly’s positive strides defensively this season, the Mikheyev – Kampf – Ritchie line from practice, and the status of Brett Seney’s injury.

Practice Lines – December 16

Montreal went back to no fans for tonight. It sounds like Scotiabank Arena will only be half full when you get back. What are your thoughts on going backward with this?

Keefe: It is tough. Coming into the season, you were so excited about making that step and playing front of fans. We are certainly grateful to be able to play in front of half capacity. Fans have certainly made an unbelievable difference this season — not just at home, but if you look at the other night in Edmonton, the response that our players were getting, for a road game, was tremendous. It is a great part about being a Leaf.

But it’s been a tough week with the way things have gone with cases. Obviously, we are hopeful that we will get through this part, vaccines do their jobs, symptoms are reduced –all of those kinds of things — so that we can press on. Certainly, around the NHL, like everybody in our community should be, we are on high alert.

How many of your players have received the booster?

Keefe: I am not certain about that. I think it is a mix. Some have and some haven’t in terms of staff and players, but I am not up to speed precisely on where that is at.

The Marlies also had a positive case announced last night and four players placed in isolation. Does that only add to the concern?

Keefe: We are thinking about our Marlies, but really, around the league, there are so many cases now that your antennas are up. You are thinking about it a lot. It sounds like protocols are going to be changing and looking a lot more like last season.

Really, just for me as an example, I have been operating that way since I came out west to Edmonton. I haven’t left my hotel except for going for walks and things like that, but otherwise, we have just been hanging out at the hotel, coming to the rink, and doing our job — doing our best to stay safe, keep it away from our team, and out of our community.

Frankly, my priority right now is to get to Toronto in time for Christmas healthy and safe and get back to my family. I think everybody is like that. It adds an extra challenging layer of being on the road now because of not wanting to be stuck here through Christmas.

There are lots of reasons to be smart right now and to try to do everything that we can to contain it.

What is your sense of how the players in the room are handling it? Is it a big concern?

Keefe: Players are definitely aware. You can’t help but be concerned given how much the cases have blown up here. The good news — if any — is that most of what we have heard from around the league is that the symptoms have been pretty minor, generally speaking.  You hope that remains the case as much as possible.

We are just going to have to remain diligent here. Stay healthy for ourselves and our team, and get back to Toronto to our families.

Where would you say Morgan Rielly has taken the biggest strides defensively this season?

Keefe: I would say gap control and physicality are the two biggest areas he has shown improvements on. He is a lot more confident staying up and being physical when closing his gap. There is also finding the balance of when to go and when not to go. When he does go offensively, how quickly he can retreat at different times and put himself in a favourable defensive position. I think that is a big part.

Also, I think our team in general has played better defensively, which makes everybody look better. That is all a part of it. I know it has been a big area of focus for him: to be a guy who is counted on in those situations in addition to the offensive pieces. He has shown great growth there for us.

You mentioned wanting to give him more chances to be involved offensively. How does he straddle that line?

Keefe: I think it is less about him, frankly, and more about our team. We have to exit quicker and break out of our zone, get more opportunities off of the rush that way, and off of transitions. That’s where those chances come alive.

It is not really an individual thing. It is more so that the team needs to put itself in more offensive situations where we transition from being in defensive posture where we get stops and go the other way. That is where those opportunities would be there for not just Morgan but all of our defense.

That is an area we tried to focus on a little bit today: get the guys moving up the ice a little bit more by transitioning out of our own end quicker. I would say it is a team thing more than it is to do with Morgan. I think he has done a good job of when those opportunities are there of assessing the risk and making the right decision.

You have two consecutive practice days for the first time this season. Did you start to accomplish what you wanted to accomplish today?

Keefe: I thought so. There were a few things we were wanting to tidy up a little bit here today — or for a while we have been wanting to tidy up — but we just haven’t been able to get at it. Also, just with the volume, you are able to touch on multiple things.

With the way we have practiced in the last number of months, you kind of have one thing a day that you can really get at. Otherwise, you are just focused on getting the guys feeling good and staying sharp. We were able to check a few things off of the list here today.

Most importantly, yesterday was a travel day for us, but really, it’s a day to recharge a bit. Even today, we didn’t want to push them too hard because we do want to use this time to [rest] and be able to use tomorrow to then ramp up and get ready for the weekend. Having two days of practice has been nice to be able to come up for some air here.

What do you like about the looks of the Mikheyev – Kampf – Ritchie line?

Keefe: Well, there is a good mix there. They’re big guys. Our hope with Kampf and Mikheyev and that duo is that they’re guys who have great defensive ability, speed, and can move the puck up the ice. Ritchie has shown the ability to make plays.

When we look at Ritchie vs. Engvall the other night, Ritchie’s ability to make plays and find people gives it a different element that way. There is not as much of the speed factor as we have with Pierre, but we then have Pierre on the other line providing that element there.

We like it. Ritchie hasn’t spent a great deal of time on the right wing. Playing on the offside for some players is a challenge. He has played a little bit in his time in the NHL, but not a great deal. Losing two right shots in Marner and Spezza, someone has to do it.

We will give Ritch a shot at it. It was his first day back on the ice today, but all signs are pointing to him being available for us.

What is the plan in net this weekend?

Keefe: Jack will play on Saturday. I would assume we will go with Mrazek after that, but we will take it a day at a time.

What is the word on Brett Seney?

Keefe: He is doing okay, but he has a combination of a really bad cut on his finger and a small fracture. He wasn’t comfortable enough putting his glove on with the risk of infection and being uncomfortable. They are not really sure what is worse right now — the cut or the fracture — but it is a pinky finger thing. A lot of times players can push through that, but he is not comfortable right now, so we are just going to continue to monitor it.