After practice on Thursday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the return of Rasmus Sandin, Ilya Mikheyev, David Kampf, and Petr Mrazek from COVID-19 protocol, preparing for a possible Saturday night game against the Ottawa Senators, and the news that arena capacity might be reduced to 1,000 spectators in the province of Ontario.
Players practicing Dec. 30:
Forwards: Bunting, Engvall, Kämpf, Kaše, Kerfoot, Marner, Matthews, Mikheyev, Ritchie, Simmonds, Spezza, Tavares
Defencemen: Biega, Brodie, Dermott, Holl, Kivihalme, Krys, Sandin (& Ryerson's Gregory DiTomaso)
Goalies: Campbell, Hutchinson, Mrazek
— Leafs PR (@LeafsPR) December 30, 2021
#Leafs lines at practice Dec. 30/21 correction** Sandin on left
D’Agostini (practice goalie)
— David Alter (@dalter) December 30, 2021
What was it like to lead a practice with the closest to a full complement of players you have had thus far?
Keefe: It was really nice to see all of those faces back out there. We are thin on defense right now, but we were able to fill those spots with some bodies and still have a functional practice. Certainly, with the forward group, it is nice to see those guys together. We are still missing Nylander, which is pretty significant.
Lots of smiles coming off of a day off yesterday for most of the group. The guys were excited to get on the ice today, and we got some good work in.
Rasmus Sandin mentioned he feels good to go if called on for the game on Saturday given how far he was into his rehab before COVID-19 hit. Where do you feel he is at?
Keefe: From what I was told from a medical standpoint in regards to his leg injury, it is in good shape. If it weren’t for COVID-19 and if our games hadn’t been postponed, the expectation was that he would be back playing by now. From that perspective, we are feeling good about that.
For both Sandin as well as Marner — who is in a similar situation — with them having their injuries and us not having our practice time, you are going to take it a day at a time. Both players seem to be progressing well. Sandin has the combination of returning from both an injury and COVID-19. You are going to be mindful of that and take it a day at a time.
We will have another practice tomorrow and then collectively, he and the medical team will make a decision on his availability for the weekend. I think we are certainly progressing [toward] that.
The CDC reduced the quarantine to five days from 10, but in different provinces, it is different. Have you been keeping an eye on that in terms of what might change in terms of getting guys back sooner given there have been players who have served the five days already?
Keefe: I did see that. It is of interest to us, but mainly just knowing that because of the cross-border issues and things of that nature, it affects different teams differently. In our case, most of our players have recovered here. There is that piece.
My job is to focus on the players that are recovered, are here, and are available. A lot of the other pieces that are happening behind the scenes are out of my control. We have lots of people that are on top of that. Until they tell us differently, we have the players on the 10-day-return schedule.
If that happens to adjust at any period of time and it affects us in a positive way in terms of getting guys back sooner, that is great. For now, we are focused on the guys that we have here.
If the game goes ahead on Saturday, is this the group you figure you will have provided no one else is in the protocol between now and then?
Keefe: I would assume so. We talked about Marner and Sandin’s injuries aside. With so many players coming off of COVID-19 here, we want to be certain that they are feeling good both in terms of their health and any effects Covid-19 might have had but also the effects of not skating or practicing for a long period of time. We won’t really know that until we get through tomorrow and until Saturday morning.
We have a number of players that were here that we returned to the Marlies that will get a game in with the Marlies today. We are going to have a larger group of players available and feeling good enough to play by Saturday. In terms of the final group, we won’t know that, but I think we are hopeful that a lot of what we saw on the ice today will be preparing for Saturday.
Is it a bonus that the top line hasn’t experienced COVID-19 and has been revving up since Sunday?
Keefe: I guess there are different ways to look at it. They didn’t have it, so they didn’t have to endure that, but just like everybody else, they were off the ice for 10 or more days. They didn’t skate.
As we talked about the other day, some of the paranoia of not having it takes its toll on you just the same. We are going to do all we can to keep things safe around here. Obviously, with Liljegren being positive yesterday, it is a reminder that we are not out of the woods here yet.
Certainly, you can see the difference in the guys who have been skating more since we have come back here and also the guys who didn’t have it. Auston wanted to keep practicing, scrimmaging, and keep it going out there. We had some other guys that were thankful we blew the final whistle. It is a pretty good indication of where guys are at.
Each individual is going to deal with these situations differently. We are just trying to do the best we can to get everybody prepared to play on Saturday regardless of their circumstances.
With players at different levels at the moment, what did you think of the second half of practice where it had a game-like feel to what you were doing?
Keefe: I thought all throughout the practice I was really happy with it. In the second half, we started to do a lot more five-on-five drills and ultimately the scrimmage. I had challenged the guys here to have a little more of a business-like mindset in the scrimmage than the scrimmage earlier this week, which was pretty loose and looked like an offseason-type scrimmage. We wanted to tighten things up here and be more purposeful with how we were playing. In today’s scrimmage, we are obviously getting closer to playing for real again.
Even the guys who stepped right in today I thought looked good. Sandin — a guy we talked about with the injury to his ankle and it has been a while since he has been with the group — looked really good and confident. Kampf and Mikheyev skated really well and did a lot of good things. Mrazek had a light day today, but it is good to see him back out there.
Those guys coming in for the first day did a good job of coming in despite the pace being higher and despite there being more five-on-five play. I was a little concerned about that coming in because we had been at it for a little while with the others that had already returned. With those guys coming in today, when we’re at a higher level, I was a little concerned about how they would manage that. I was watching them closer. I was happy with how they responded.
I really shouldn’t be surprised. Kampf and Mikheyev are two of our fittest players with how they take care of themselves. Sandin, you could tell from talking to him off the ice, was super excited to get back out there today. It didn’t seem like COVID-19 had much of an effect on him physically. He had been skating on his own with player development before he got COVID-19. He was well on his way to a return. You could see some of those positive effects that way.
With Liljegren testing positive and the team not out of the woods yet, you have a game on Saturday on the schedule. There are reports that starting next week, games at home might be limited to just 1,000 fans. Is there any concern that the league is not going to be equal everywhere and it might provide a competitive disadvantage for the group?
Keefe: Some of that is certainly at play. Even last season, it was less so because of the fact that we were playing in the Canadian division and all of that, but you could watch the games down in the U.S. We have some players on the teams that were playing down there and coaches coaching down there. You could see how different it was and how they felt it gave them a boost.
Some of that is true. That is the reality of what we are dealing with today. There are no ideal circumstances. Everybody is trying to do their best to make sure the games can be played, first of all. If you look at what we have gone through with the World Juniors, none of this is ideal. No one wants this situation to be what it is. We are trying to make the best of it.
Everybody’s circumstance is different in every city, every province, every state, and every country. We are just grateful we get to come to work every day. No matter what the circumstances are, it is on us to make the best of it.