After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the team’s decision to call up Nick Robertson, starting Jack Campbell on Saturday night, Travis Dermott’s improved play of late, and Auston Matthews’ emergence as a leader in all facets of the game.
Practice Lines – February 25
Leafs practice underway
Tavares, Engvall, Mikheyev absent up front
As a result, bottom nine is a mishmash
Clifford skating with Nylander, Kase
Holl skating with Kerfoot, Kampf
Robertson skating with Spezza-Simmonds pic.twitter.com/ceKZlwV9KN
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) February 25, 2022
Leafs D at practice
Rielly – Liljegren
Brodie – Holl
Sandin – Lyubushkin @TSN_Edge
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) February 25, 2022
Are the absences all to do with the same issue?
Keefe: [The bug] seems to be running through the team quite a bit. It affected Mikheyev yesterday and some more guys today. We had to make some adjustments because of that. Robertson is the one recall that we made, but we will have to see where the rest of the group is at throughout the rest of the day today and tomorrow.
Will Nick Robertson come with you on the trip?
Keefe: Yeah, Nick will come on the trip and play tomorrow. We will see what the rest of the group looks for from there.
Is there anything about Robertson’s game that has stood out since he has returned from injury?
Keefe: I don’t think so. I haven’t watched him a great deal. His being here is probably less to do with what has happened since he has come back from injury and more so our belief in the player and his skill set. He has played for us before and played well here before. There is an opportunity there.
With some of our guys getting sick, and starting today at practice it seems like more guys are getting sick, we are going to put him in a game and adjust from there. We just want to give him more experience and more opportunities to continue to grow — not unlike the Joe Woll situation. That case is a little bit different perhaps because he hadn’t played at all here, but it is more so the situation we are in and the circumstances we are in that create the opportunity for a player that we believe in.
If John Tavares can’t play tomorrow, would William Nylander shift to center?
Keefe: I haven’t thought that far ahead. Right now, I am not thinking that way. We believe John will be okay to play. We will see how that goes.
Is it Petr Mrazek in net tomorrow against his old team?
Keefe: It’s Jack Campbell tomorrow.
What was your thought process there? You had said you are not tied to alternating. What made you go to Jack tomorrow?
Keefe: To be honest, I don’t want there to be too big of gaps for either of our guys here the rest of the way. That is part of it. This one, to me, was really just as simple as wanting to get Jack back in. Petr played the last time in Detroit; it’s his former team. This time, it’s Jack in his home state. It is as simple as that for me.
What do the Red Wings present as far as a challenge?
Keefe: Lots of skill. Lots of speed. We felt that when we were out there playing against them not long ago. They built a significant lead on us and really came at us. We found a way through that. Hopefully, we learned what they are capable of and what is required of our play.
It is going to be a continued focus on us, but we have a lot of respect for the speed and skill they come with.
Has Moritz Seider stood out to you for what he is able to do?
Keefe: The big thing is that he can do so much. He is a big guy who is physical. He has skill and confidence for a young player. He is one of the elite young defenders in the league and a big part of where their team is going here in terms of the young talent.
What have you seen from Travis Dermott as he looks to carve out a role this season?
Keefe: He has really tried to find his way within what is happening here as our young defensemen in Sandin and Liljegren have really blossomed and taken steps. He is trying to find his place within that. He has had to take a step back in some ways.
Some of it is because we feel he hasn’t really taken advantage of the opportunities that had come his way. When you do that, you really open up the door a little bit for younger guys to come in. Those guys have done really well. He hasn’t played as much.
That said, I do think he has played his fourth in a row now and it is the best stretch he has played all season. If you look at it last night, when we come out of the timeout last night with the goalie out, Rielly and Brodie had played a lot. Dean [Chynoweth] felt they were still a little tired and was showing the confidence in Dermott and Liljegren to go out and do the job, and he did it.
That speaks to where he is at right now. It is unfortunate that he has a little bit of a bug going here and might not be able to play tomorrow. We hope it serves his confidence and development well. It certainly does a lot in terms of our confidence in him.
Is there something you want to see more of from him?
Keefe: You want to see him play with authority with and without the puck. Without the puck, it’s tight gaps, being physical, creating separation, getting pucks stopped; creating loose puck situations that you can turn with confidence yourself, move your feet, and advance the puck up to the forwards.
I think he has done that in as good of a stretch as we have seen here in the last few games. The timing, as I said yesterday, is very good with Muzzin being out. We hope this is a launching pad for more.
We expect it to be very competitive with our defense group the rest of the way here. Muzzin’s health aside, we have the addition of Lyubushkin and the addition of Sandin and Liljegren. We have Holl and Dermott in this mix now.
We have some real competition for spots there. At times, guys aren’t going to be happy, but that is all healthy as we work towards being a deeper team.
Auston Matthews leads NHL forwards in takeaways, and it seems to almost always surprise the guys on the backcheck. Why do you think he’s able to consistently win pucks back in that way?
Keefe: First of all, there is the will to do it. That is probably the most important thing that makes him elite at it. He has the skill set to do it, the size, reach, strong hands, good hand-eye coordination, and all of those things.
If you have those things but not the will to dig in and push… If you look at the one last night that leads to the goal, you are five, six, or seven strides behind. That takes a lot of effort to get to that spot.
When he is really determined, he is usually coming up with the puck in the defensive zone and offensive zone. It is an area of his game that doesn’t get talked about a lot, but it is a big reason why his line is on offense a lot and getting the puck.
We are lucky that Mitch is strong in that area, too, for different reasons. He is quick and reads things well. William Nylander is very good at that. John Tavares is very good at that as well. Certainly, Auston is at the head of the class there.
What does his goal last night after the team went down 1-0 say about his ability to recognize moments and then meet them?
Keefe: Any player of his calibre wants to be a difference-maker for sure. Auston is really recognizing where he is at now in his evolution. His growth as a leader for our team is to be there and respond in those situations.
Yesterday was a real small sample of events happening. We are talking about his steal and his response to a goal. He does little things like that that certainly get noticed inside of our walls. I think that is a big part of his growth as a player and his emergence as a true leader amongst our group.
What are your conversations like with a player of that ilk who might not need that coaching, if you will?
Keefe: I am more checking in on how he is feeling and monitoring his energy levels. At times, you are giving him some direction. The way you describe it is pretty accurate.
When I was first hired here, we were talking a lot and meeting a lot — watching a lot of clips — and I think he has a clear understanding of what my expectations are of him. I think he also has a much better understanding of what it means to be truly great in the league, which is not just the offensive piece and the scoring and all of those things, but really, truly impacting the game in every way possible.
He has done that virtually in every way for us save for the penalty kill. He plays in all situations, and on both sides of the puck, he has done a really good job. When he is at his best, he is dominating on both sides of it.
That has been the greatest development over my time that I have seen. Since I have been here, I think a lot of that is firmly in place. He knows the expectations. For me, it is about more managing him and how he is feeling and making sure he understands that we are going to do what we can to keep him healthy and fresh. We are wanting his perspective on what is happening and how he sees things that are happening on the ice.
In a lot of cases, he is in a groove and he has grown up in the league enough now to know how to take care of himself and be prepared. He just needs little reminders from me from time to time. He is in a good place with where he is at.
Does last night’s win provide a good template for what you are looking for in terms of defensive play leading to offense?
Keefe: I would say so. Defensively, for sure. There were a lot of things offensively that we struggled with in that first period, especially. Give Minnesota credit, but part of it was that we just weren’t sharp. We had trouble connecting on real simple passes, whether it was the guy making the pass that was off, or if it was tape to tape, we didn’t handle it very cleanly.
There were some things there that really stalled us offensively that we didn’t like. When we are at our best, we are better that way. We are going to have nights where you are not at your best; you are not feeling it, you’re not sharp, and the puck is not bouncing or moving the way you would like it to. The commitment defensively and the structure — that should be a given every single night. That is just a decision you make as a group.
That is what I took away from that game. To me, it started in Columbus, but we did a lot of good things that we asked our guys to do, and we carried it forward in the last night and we got rewarded for it.