Sheldon Keefe, Practice
Sheldon Keefe addresses the media after practice

After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed losing Nick Ritchie, Justin Holl, and Ondrej Kase to COVID-19 protocol, Mitch Marner and Pierre Engvall’s return to practice, Timothy Liljegren filling in next to Jake Muzzin in Holl’s absence, and Jack Campbell’s selection to the All-Star team.

Practice Lines – January 14

Just as you lose three players to COVID-19 protocol, you get Mitch Marner and Pierre Engvall back. How do their returns help what you plan to deploy against St. Louis tomorrow night?

Keefe: Certainly, the timing is really good given that we have lost guys. We are not creating a hole that way. With Marner and Engvall specifically, both guys are really valuable to us. They contribute in lots of ways — Marner at the top of the lineup, and Engvall increases our depth greatly; being on the road especially, he is a guy we can trust and put on the ice in any situation.

It is tough to see more guys leave the lineup. That is what we’re dealing with these days. Having those guys back at practice today is a nice boost for the group.

How much can you reasonably expect from Engvall and Marner tomorrow after their layoff?

Keefe: We don’t have any expectation other than both guys appear to be ready. In talking to them, they feel good. They have been able to get some good skates in back home in Toronto before today. That has helped their cause.

In terms of their status with protocol and such, they had to meet certain criteria for the NHL, which is different from where we are at in Ontario. They were able to get a little bit more work done in terms of closing the gap and preparing. That has helped them and helped their mindset.

When Mitch Marner is at his best, how valuable is he for your lineup?

Keefe: It’s huge. As we have said before, he contributed on the power play and the penalty kill. Any matchup defensively, he handles. Late in games, he is a key for us, and he plays at the top of the lineup. He is a vital piece of our team.

You mentioned concern about the team’s conditioning after Wednesday’s loss. How do you remedy that? Is it from some hard skates at the end of practice? Is it a rest? Is it a combination of both?

Keefe: I think it is a combination of both. You need rest also on a road trip like this with back-to-back games and different time zones through this trip. The rest day is important.

In terms of the comment on conditioning, it is more of a reflection for me, as I look at the three games we played on this trip… In a lot of ways, they are the closest representation to how the NHL really is. The games at home were tune-ups that helped us get back to it, but with the nature of the games and no fans, I am not sure we took a whole lot from that.

It has shown that we haven’t played in these environments in quite some time. We have to be mindful of that. I don’t think it is anyone’s fault. I think it is just the nature of what we are going through. A lot of teams are going through similar things.

We took a day off yesterday and practiced today. We didn’t want to go long today, but we wanted to go hard. Rather than finishing off with a few more drills, we skated instead.

Can you put into perspective how difficult it is to accomplish what Jack Campbell has accomplished over these last couple of years?

Keefe: It is obviously extremely challenging. You don’t have to look any further than the fact that not many goaltenders are able to play at that level for that period of time. It has been tremendous to see it happening before your eyes every day in the facility. You see his personality, the work that he has put in, the confidence he has gained within himself, and also that his teammates have gained in him. It has been tremendous to witness that.

Did you get to see his reaction when he got named to the All-Star team?

Keefe: It was an off day for us, but I did speak to him about it. He was excited. He is a humble guy and is quick to pass around the credit. It is terrific that he is going to get his moment and his recognition.

Where do you want to see the team make improvements in front of Jack Campbell defensively? Is there room for that?

Keefe: With our structure in each zone, we can continue to tighten up and get better. There hasn’t been necessarily been one theme. Against Colorado and Vegas, I thought we exposed our net a couple of times and paid for it. We didn’t have enough coverage there. It is usually a strength of our game. That is something that got away on us there.

Against Arizona, structurally, I thought we gave up too much space, time, and speed through the neutral zone. It is in part because you are chasing the game and trying to score.

I think it is just a matter of consistency. That is what we have talked about since day one as a team. Arizona was an issue off the rush, but Vegas and Colorado are two of the best teams in the league off the rush, and I thought we did a tremendous job. It shows that we are capable of playing the game any way, adjusting, and adapting to what any opponent is bringing. We just have to be able to stick with it and be consistent.

With Justin Holl in the COVID-19 protocol, why do you like Timothy Liljegren with Jake Muzzin?

Keefe: It is a natural fit. The right shot is a big one, but also, he has played there and done a good job for us. Before we got into Covid and the break, I really thought Liljegren was comfortable in the top four with Jake and did a really good job for us. He is in the process of getting back up and running again and feeling good. The timing works out for Liljegren in that he has had a game now. He can build on that and get back to playing how he wants.