Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe addresses the media after practice

After practice on Tuesday, Sheldon Keefe discussed Jake Muzzin’s injury, Michael Bunting’s emergence as a top-line fixture, and Morgan Rielly’s torrid pace offensively since the start of December.

Practice Lines – January 18

What is Jake Muzzin’s status after missing practice today?

Keefe: Yesterday, after practice, Jake reported that he wasn’t feeling quite right. He took that hit in the game in St. Louis. They were monitoring him for that, but he felt he was okay and good to practice. Through the intensity of practice, he wasn’t liking how he was feeling.

At this point, he has been diagnosed with a concussion. He is not going to travel with us. He won’t be available this week.

The play Auston Matthews made to set up Michael Bunting off of the draw in St. Louis — what stands out about his hockey sense?

Keefe: Obviously, it is at an elite level. The talent, the ability, and the athleticism are only a part of the equation. A sense of where to go and what to do is part of the package. That is why he is in such a rare, special class of player.

With a play like that and that level of recognition — who you are against, what hand they are, where they’re winning the faceoff — to be able to execute on what you are intending to do is great stuff. That is why he is such a major difference-maker. He has so many different tools.

Back in September, did you see Michael Bunting earning a role on the top line? What is he doing to keep that role?

Keefe: There was top-line or top-six or playing significant minutes — I certainly did see that. There was both what I know of Bunts looking at his clips and games last season in Arizona, and then also just knowing the calibre of players that we have and how he could create chemistry with them, no matter how it shook out or whatever the line was.

I had confidence that he was going to be a significant contributor for us both at five on five and on the power play. It is not a huge surprise, frankly, especially knowing the drive and passion that he has, and how motivated he was coming into the season.  He was a UFA and had options, but he really wanted to be a part of this here. There were no guarantees given to him. He knew that coming in.

The only guarantee was that we were going to play the players that give us the best opportunity to succeed — the players that are consistent in their habits and work ethic. He has the talent to go with those intangibles. He is making good on it.

What does it mean for a coaching staff when you have a defenseman like Morgan Rielly who you can play 28 minutes the other night and trust what you’re getting from him in those 28 minutes?

Keefe: It is huge. You need to have guys that you can rely upon. Not everybody is going to have their best night all the time. You don’t want to play anybody to that degree, ideally. Sometimes — injuries, we were missing Holl with Covid the other night, or whatever it is  — you need to lean on people.

It is the same on the forward side. Some of our forwards’ ice time gets higher than we would like it to be, but the game is on the line and you need to count on people. Morgan is one of those guys for us. His minutes are going to climb in some of those instances.

He has reached a point where, whether it is penalty killing or matchups, he has taken those steps to be able to take those minutes without any hesitance from the coaching staff.

The run of offense that Rielly has been on — this is what we have seen from Morgan in the past with his 70-point season. Is it pretty much what you expect out of him now?

Keefe: If I look at the last two seasons of production, I thought he was capable of a lot more. A lot of it was just some luck attached to it and some finish for himself and others. When we go through the scoring chances religiously and break it down, Morgan’s contribution to our scoring chances has always been off the charts relative to our defense.

I don’t think it is in a different place necessarily this season, but it is just that the puck is going in a lot more. He or his linemates are converting, making those plays, and finishing at the net. The production has gone up.

Obviously, the power play hitting at the clip that it is helps as well with his role in that. Offensively, those chances and the generation of opportunities has been there pretty consistently. It is going in the net a lot more. That is why you are seeing the production in terms of points.

Similar to playing against Cale Makar in Colorado, how does game preparation change at all when you’re playing against a young, dynamic offensive defenseman who can do a lot of productive things with the puck like Adam Fox?

Keefe: It changes. They’re different; they’re both special in their own way, but they’re different in terms of how they generate offense. Certainly, you need to be aware of them, close on them quickly, and get the puck out of their hands.

In Fox’s case especially, it is equally as important that you are aware of where his options are on the ice because he is so good and so smart at finding people. Makar is going to take the puck right through you and shoot it in the net. Fox certainly has those abilities as well, but there are differences in what makes them great.

We have to be aware when they are out there for sure. The Rangers have a lot of players who are in that category.