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

After practice on Monday, Sheldon Keefe discussed his shake-up of the forward units that placed Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander on separate lines, Nylander’s ability to play center if need be, and Jake Muzzin’s status in his recovery from a concussion.

Practice Lines – January 24

John Tavares said before his media interview today that the sport of hockey has to do more to eradicate racism. He mentioned some of what the Leafs have been doing as a team in terms of self-education. How far has the league come in terms of this since you played in the league, and how much further does it have to go?

Keefe: There is no question that there has been progress and the conversations are being had around the league. In our organization specifically, there are a lot of conversations and a lot of education, and yet here we are in 2022, and these incidents are still happening in our pro leagues here in North America.

That is an obvious reminder that we are not even close to where we need to be. We have to continue to do our part to make our game a safe place for people of colour. That is an obvious reminder for me. When you see incidents like that occurring in this day and age when you feel like there is progress being made, it shows that we have to continue to do more.

You changed up the lines today in practice. What is your thinking with that?

Keefe: It is something I have been wanting to get a look at for quite some time now. Really, dating all the way back to training camp, we haven’t been healthy. For me, it is about having Matthews, Marner, and Nylander on three separate lines and getting a look at what that looks like for both our team and how the opposition might look to contend with it.

Since training camp and exhibition games, I have been wanting to get a look at something like that. We were planning — coming out of the Christmas break with all of our Covid issues — to get a look at something like this, but we just haven’t been healthy enough with Covid and injuries to go with it.

It is something I have been wanting to get a look at. Today’s practice — that is what it was about. We will practice again tomorrow, get a feel for it from there, and make a determination for how we will proceed on Wednesday.

Does it have anything to do with the fact that the schedule is going to be so busy coming up?

Keefe: Not specifically because of our schedule and anything that is upcoming, but just the realities of the season. We have already been through parts of the season where things have come up and we’ve been forced to use different line combinations that we hadn’t necessarily thought of. In doing so, we found some things that work really well.

We have some confidence in Kase’s ability to play with Matthews and Bunting. Right away, it gives us the ability to say, “We think that works well for us, so what can we do underneath that?” It gives me more confidence in going with something I was thinking a lot about through training camp and the offseason. You don’t know what the season is going to bring in terms of the heath of our lineup, what we need to do to play against different opponents, and what the schedule demands.

We think we have some really good things happening with our group. I really like the way Kampf, Mikheyev, and Engvall played together. Those guys, to me, were really, really good for us in Long Island the other night and through good portions of the game against the Rangers. We have seen some consistency there dating back to St. Louis.

We like that a lot, and of course, we like that Tavares, Kerfoot, and Nylander has been a good line for us as well as, of course, Marner, Matthews, and Bunting. We know we have some things that work, and we can go back to it any time. I expect we will, but I think it is important for us to have different options and get everybody comfortable playing in different situations — and get used to moving around.

Does it speak to the confidence you have in the depth of the team when everybody is healthy?

Keefe: Going into training camp, I was hopeful. It was about providing extra opportunities for other players. As we get going in the season and you see what Kase can bring to the group, you see what Mikheyev is doing this season, you know what Bunting has been providing for us. All the way through, Kampf has been a very valuable player.

Now you have guys who we are very confident in. That gives me the confidence to be able to look at different things like this. It is something I have wanted to get a look at for quite some time here now.

Now that we are as healthy as we have been all season from a forward perspective, I wanted to get a look at it here and in today’s practice to start with. Who knows how long we’ll stay healthy? I think it is important for us to be flexible that way.

How do you frame a change like this to a guy like William Nylander so that he doesn’t see it as a demotion?

Keefe: A lot goes into our game with talking about top-six/bottom-six and things of that nature, but it is really about minutes and how much guys play. I don’t see anything changing there at all.

Generally, at five-on-five, for the most part, you have two or three lines that are going to play about the same. Willy has great chemistry with Alex Kerfoot, so we wanted to maintain that. With Kampf’s involvement on that line, it gives us great defensive utility as Kampf can provide, but also, Kamp has been great forechecking, getting up the ice, and helping with that.

It also gives me some flexibility to look at it getting Matthews and Tavares some extra shifts in there, or maybe moving Nylander to center at different times, or putting Marner or Kase or whoever there. Engvall has played very well and can move up.

I just like the ability to have lots of options. It is on me to manage the minutes. That was my message to Will — and not just Will but to Mitch, to Auston, to John — who I spoke to as well — and Mikheyev in terms of how I foresee it and what I am thinking in doing this.

There is no demotion here for anybody. I think this is about spreading out our lineup. It is something we haven’t really done in my time here very much. I want to see what it does to our team with the additions that we have made in the offseason and the guys who are really comfortable on our roster.

Also, how does the opposition contend with that and what does it look like? We have a good sense of some things that work really well that I can go back to at any time. It will be on me to manage that.

What are some of the situations in which you might consider getting a look at William Nylander at center?

Keefe: We are just going to monitor it. I have used Will there at different times there. I am confident in his ability to do that. Kerfoot is just the same — he can play the middle as well. I have lots of confidence however that shakes out.

The reality is that, with the way the game is played today, usually the centerman is determined by who takes the faceoff. After that, there is not a lot of position happening. There is so much interchanging. The game is so fast that you are constantly switching off. Different players are playing low all the time. Different players are playing the middle of the ice. You have to read and react off of each other.

I am not too concerned about that with William and Kerf both having played there. I can go whichever way with it in terms of getting someone else on the line in offensive situations on faceoffs and such. I just like the options that it has.

With Willy playing as well as he has through this season and having threats on two other lines — in addition to that — I see it as a challenge for the opposition. I am curious to see how that plays out.

John Tavares mentioned that he hasn’t been as consistent as he would’ve liked since coming back from the break. For some of the veteran players, is it harder to get the engine revved up again?

Keefe: I think we have seen some of that for sure. I have had similar conversations with Jason Spezza. He feels that not playing a lot of games has been a challenge. Even Muzzin coming out of the break felt pretty similar.

That is the reality of our schedule. The games are going to come. Let’s do all we can to be as prepared as possible for the ones that do come here. That is all we can do.

John has still played well for us and still made plays. We think he has another level to get to. The schedule, as I say, is going to heat up. Guys will be in the rhythm that they’re accustomed to. It is just a matter of finding their way right now.

We will see how it all plays out. Even something as simple as changing the lines like that and changing the chemistry in and of itself is stimulating enough to get some new chemistry going and get those guys firing again.

Is there any update on a timeline for Jake Muzzin?

Keefe: He is feeling better. His involvement in today’s practice — at least the first half of it — is a good indication of his progress. Any time you are recovering from an injury like this, you have boxes to check along the way. Today’s practice was one of those boxes to get him back going again.

I haven’t gotten an update in terms of how he felt after practice. Given the process that players coming back from practice go through, I would say Wednesday is probably a stretch for him at this point. We are monitoring him and seeing how he handles things oday. I haven’t gotten word on that.