Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs

After practice on Wednesday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the challenge against Pittsburgh on Thursday night, Mitch Marner’s hockey IQ, and the play of the Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl pairing.

Practice Lines – February 16

Darryl Sutter described Mitch Marner as the whole package. Where have you seen Marner take steps as a complete player?

Keefe: I don’t know if he has made steps because I think he has always been that. When I took over, he was already killing penalties. He was already the guy out late in games. As you continue to get more experience and you get older in the league, you refine those abilities.

He has always been that guy, so I don’t want to say he has made steps since then. I think he just continues to realize that it is an important part of the game, he is counted on in those situations, and he needs to take it seriously. And he does.

Have you coached any smarter players hockey IQ-wise?

Keefe: Probably not. As we talked about the other night with the play that he made offensively, the level of awareness you need to have and the skill set to pull it off just kind of speaks to the fact that he has that.

Sometimes you can coach really smart players, but they don’t have the abilities to really act on that intelligence. There is a gap there. If you get a player who has both, you end up with Mitch Marner.

What does it say about Auston Matthews that he was blocking a shot with a 4-1 lead the other night?

Keefe: The first thing it means is that we have probably done some things wrong that have led us to spend too much time in our own end, which was the case on that particular shift.

I don’t question Auston’s willingness to get in front of shots and block shots. I think it speaks to the mindset of our team. That is an area that we can continue to get focus on and get better when that is what the game calls for.

On that one, he took it on the side a little bit, if we are thinking of the same one. That you don’t love to see. Normally, he fronts them pretty good and takes it right into the meat of the shinpad.

That is something I have come to expect from him. As a center down there, a lot of pucks end up coming your way. That is something that he has done really well. At times, he uses it as an offensive tool because he knocks those pucks down and goes the other way quickly.

You split up Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin down the stretch of the game in Seattle. Can you take us through your decision-making there and whether they will be back together tomorrow?

Keefe: The first thing I would say is to maybe not read too much into the practice today in terms of our decision-making for tomorrow. We might have a different look tomorrow with it.

Regardless of what it is today or what it may be tomorrow, we think Muzzin and Holl are guys we know are going to have to take on big minutes and be a big part of things for us. At the same time, we have moved things around throughout the season, and we probably will continue to do so down the stretch.

Do you find it is the one big mistake that is costing them pretty often? Why does the puck seem to be going in against that pairing?

Keefe: In terms of the puck going into the net, that probably requires a bit of a deeper look. If you look at some of the things that go badly,  I think it is more a compounding situation. It is not just one mistake; it is usually one mistake that leads to a second, a third, a great deal of fatigue, and then the puck goes in.

That is what I have seen. It is not just on those guys. It is on our team and how we manage a mistake when it happens to not let it compound when we get the next touch on the puck.

If you look at the goal the other night, that is a really tough shift where a lot has gone wrong. All of a sudden, we have the puck, there is a chance to settle down, and we turn it back and come back to our own end; that is when the bad break happens where it hits the referee.

That, to me, is not managing the situation well. That is really nothing to do with Muzzin and Holl in that particular case, but it is the things that have happened prior to that where we want to get better.

Do you take much of the past games against Pittsburgh — both losses — including the blowout loss in October? Obviously, you were a different team back then.

Keefe: The thing we certainly should take away from it is what the opponent is capable of if we are not sharp. We think we have grown a lot since then and a lot has changed since then. It just means you have to be alert and have to be aware of your opponent. You have to know their strengths.

It is not just because of the games we have played against them. If you look at the season that they have had, they are an elite team. They have been an elite team for a long time. It doesn’t give you any easy nights against them. There is no shortage of reasons for us to be at our best tomorrow.

What do you respect such much about Sydney Crosby, and what is the challenge presented by game-planning for him?

Keefe: What you respect is his longevity and how much he has been a dominant and effective player. He has won both in our league and on the international stage. There is no shortage of reasons to respect him.

In terms of playing against him, he is going to be hard on the puck. You have to keep him to the perimeter and take away his options. You try to make him and the other guys that they have defend as much as you can and keep them away from your end. It’s not an easy thing to do.

Will it be Jack Campbell tomorrow?

Keefe: Campbell, yep.