After practice on Wednesday, Sheldon Keefe discussed Auston Matthews and Jake Muzzin’s status ahead of the upcoming road trip, the Tavares line’s defensive play, and the challenge ahead in the team’s slate of games out West.

Practice Lines – February 9

Why was Wayne Simmonds missing from practice?

Keefe: His wife gave birth this morning — I am not sure the exact time, but they welcomed a new baby into the world. He had good reason to be away today.

Will he join you on the flight out West?

Keefe: He won’t join us today. I am not sure when exactly he will join us. He and his wife will have that discussion and make that determination.

If you are a forward short, is there a plan in place?

Keefe: We have seven defensemen here, so that is an option as well for us. We will have to wait and see what is happening with Wayne and make that determination once we have that.

We have more happening than that. With Auston’s situation, it looks like it is going to be okay and he’ll be good for tomorrow. With Muzzin’s situation, I still haven’t gotten the okay on him coming back. We have some things up in the air. Kyle will sort through those kinds of things.

What were the conversations like in the process of clearing Auston Matthews for practice?

Keefe: It was very encouraging by the time he left the building the other night. I am not a part of those conversations, but with the medical team, they were feeling confident that it wasn’t going to be a concussion type of thing. They need to be patient with that and give some time to elapse.

Auston and I exchanged some text messages that night. He told me he was feeling good. I confirmed I was giving him the day off regardless and to take that. Through yesterday, he felt good and was eager to get back out there today. He seems no worse for wear.

Muzzin is coming off of a long layoff. How do you think he’s looking this week?

Keefe: He looks good. He looks like himself. I think there are a couple of things when you are coming off of a head injury. You are dealing with that and making sure you are comfortable on the ice. And then there is getting comfortable on the ice again touching the puck, making plays, and handling pressure.

He looks to me like he is handling that well. He has had a good chunk of time here now to be skating. He was skating a lot before the All-Star break. He took some time away. He has come back and has really ramped it up. He looks like he is in a good spot to me.

Both Jake and the medical team will make the determination tomorrow as to whether he is available to us.

What do you think the minutes Rasmus Sandin was able to play in Muzzin’s absence will do for his development?

Keefe: It should help his confidence for sure. It certainly helps our confidence in him. It helps the team’s confidence.

Muzzin is a very important player for us. When you take him out of our lineup, you have others step up and take on extra responsibilities — it is not just Rasmus but all of our defensemen. Our whole team in general — forwards, goaltenders — has found ways to win games despite missing a very important player for us. That is a really good sign for our team.

Specific to Sandin, I think anytime you get those extra minutes — Liljegren has had that at different times — it helps the confidence both in that you can do it and also just knowing that your team and your coaches believe in you.

John Tavares was saying his line needs to focus on the defensive details. What can that line do to tighten up a little bit moving forward?

Keefe: It all goes hand in hand. Once you find your rhythm and your game, everything falls into place. Those guys, at different times this season, have been really firing at both ends of the ice. A lot of it is just to do with pace and speed both with and without the puck; how the puck moves, how your legs move, overall intensity. There has been a little bit of a dip there.

As they get back to that… I thought the last game was a positive step for them. John made a big-time play that gets overlooked a little bit on the overtime-winning goal. Those are the kinds of things that can get a guy going.

We are anxious to get out there and get back playing against. There is a little bit more of a regular rhythm coming up here with our schedule. We think that is a really good thing. Our players are excited about that.

What do you remember about the last time you took this Western Canada road trip, and what do you anticipate in the upcoming games?

Keefe: It seems like it has been a long time since then. We were ready for these games. We had done our prep and all of those kinds of things. We were a little bit ahead of the game that way. The time has elapsed, so you kind of circle back on it.

This Western trip is one we thought we would already have in the books by now. We are eager to get out there and play. It is always nice to get out to these cities — Calgary, Vancouver — and Seattle is one that we haven’t been to. It is a great experience there.