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

After practice on Tuesday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the new defense pairings in practice, sitting Timothy Liljegren for tomorrow’s game, the Engvall – Kampf – Mikheyev combination, and Mitch Marner receiving the NHL’s first star honours for the month of February.

Practice Lines – March 1

Auston Matthews was absent from practice due to a maintenance day. Ondrej Kase is considered day-to-day and did not practice, leaving him doubtful for tomorrow night’s game versus Buffalo.

What led you to shake things up on defense with Morgan Rielly and Rasmus Sandin together today?

Keefe: Really, it is just a reshuffling of our defense. Liljegren is not going to play tomorrow. We are going to put Dermott back in. It is just a good opportunity for us here to continue to use the depth. We think that is important.

Lily has played a lot. His last couple of games haven’t been his best. He has done a great job of finding consistency in his game that makes you believe in giving him a chance to play up there with Morgan, but I think we have to continue to use our depth.

We have seen the effect it has had on Justin Holl just taking a day or two off. We will try the same approach here with Lily.

What potential do you see for Sandin and Rielly together? Do you think there is anything Sandin can learn from Rielly’s game that can benefit him?

Keefe: I think he can get that whether he is playing that or not. Just watching him from the bench, maybe there is more advantage to that. Being on the ice with him, he has to be his partner and be there to help him out. He has to move pucks to him. He has to defend.

I am hopeful that they can just complement each other well. One thing it does that interests us to get a look at: not unlike when Brodie is there, but certainly with Sandin, we like to use him in offensive situations, as we do with Morgan. Now you have them both and you can pair them with the Matthews line in offensive zone faceoffs. We are curious to see how that plays out.

I wouldn’t read a whole lot into it. It is more that we just wanted to give Lily the day off here. We have liked the way Brodie and Holl is shaping up. Somebody who is a lefty had to play the right side. We wanted to give Sandin a look there.

How would you describe the effect Brodie has had on Holl’s game?

Keefe: It has clearly been positive, but at the same time, it is important not to downplay Holl’s game itself. Brodie has a stabilizing presence no matter who he plays with for sure, but for Justin himself, his touches have been clean. He is playing with confidence offensively. He is defending well. Full marks to Justin on that.

Mitch Marner was named the first star of the month. Have you noticed anything that has changed in his game this season in terms of his approach?

Keefe: You have to give credit to Mitch. He has had extreme confidence here, whether it is his goal-scoring and how the puck is coming off of his stick, or the confidence around the net with the playmaking and work ethic. With the ability that he has, he has great potential to have big months like this.

When you look at his line and how his linemates have performed, they have been dynamic. They have been outstanding in so many ways as a line. That is just going to prop up everybody there. I think they are all benefitting from each other.

Certainly, the offensive pieces are generally what gets you these acknowledgments, but Mitch has done a terrific job for us on the penalty kill, a terrific job defensively, and it is nice to see guys get rewarded when you know they’re giving you their full effort.

What do you like about how Engvall has fit in with Kampf and Mikheyev when they are together?

Keefe: They just seem to complement each other very well. All three guys skate really well. All three guys have good skill sets individually to hang onto the puck and bring it up the ice. It is three of the best guys we have at transporting the puck from our own zone to the offensive zone. If you put them all on the ice together, you see positive results that way.

When Pierre is playing higher up in the lineup, he is going to play more and feel more involved and engaged in the game. That is part of it. One of the challenges of being down on the fourth line is that you don’t get to play as much and you have to find your way within that. It is a little bit easier to find your rhythm when you are in the top nine. I think that has a positive effect on guys. When there is an opportunity that is created — in this case, with Kase being out — Pierre, I think, gets excited by that.

There have been a lot of good things that we have seen from that line. They were as good of a line as we had last night for sure.

In Nick Robertson’s limited minutes, what have you seen from him so far? How much do you want to give him a little more ice time?

Keefe: I thought he was really good in Detroit. Last night, I thought he was fine, too. That line, especially early in the first period, was spending a lot of time in our own end. That is not necessarily a reflection on Nick so much as the line. Right away, you are going to lose a little bit of confidence in the group. Also, there was a ton of special teams yesterday. Nick is not a part of that.

He has come in here trying to earn every shift and take advantage of the opportunity that we have given him. I am happy with his attitude. I am happy with the game he played in Detroit. That is what made us want to keep him in the lineup again last night.

However the minutes shake out, for a young guy like him, it is just about soaking up the whole experience and getting a taste of the NHL again.

Starting with Buffalo, you are going to play against some teams lower in the standings. Some of those teams have given you trouble this year. Is that a reminder to be ready for tomorrow?

Keefe: It is another opportunity for us to continue to focus on our game and get that right, no matter who we are playing against. That is really it. We have respect for Buffalo just like when we played them out in Buffalo earlier in the season. They have lots of skill and they have good young players. They are playing free and loose. If you are not ready and prepared, they have the potential to make it hard on you.

We are just going to focus on our game. The way we have played and the way that we have defended gives us a chance to win every night and lets our skilled guys do their thing while protecting our goaltenders. We just have to stay with our game.

Are you going back with Petr Mrazek tomorrow or returning to Jack Campbell?

Keefe: Petr will go tomorrow.