After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed Auston Matthews’ return on Saturday night in Nashville, whether he considered keeping John Tavares with Michael Bunting and Mitch Marner, Pierre Engvall’s emergence as a top-nine regular, and the impact of Erik Källgren’s calm demeanour in the net on the team in front of him.
Practice Lines – March 18
Note: Maintenance day for David Kampf and Ondrej Kase.
Lines at Leafs practice
Bunting – Matthews – Marner
Robertson – Tavares – Nylander
Mikheyev – Engvall – Simmonds
Clifford – Kerfoot – Spezza
Rielly – Lyubushkin
Brodie – Holl
Sandin – Dermott
Muzzin (🛑) – Liljegren
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) March 18, 2022
Are you expecting Auston Matthews to pick up where he left off considering he was able to skate during the suspension?
Keefe: I would expect that. There is something to be said for sure about losing your rhythm a little bit. The competitiveness of the games and the timing that is associated with it as a thing. You can’t replicate that. He skated more by himself for the most part than he has with the team through this in terms of volume on the ice. There is that piece.
There is also something to be said for the rest that comes with it and filling the tank that way. He also had some time to work at his game, work at his shot, and all of those kinds of things that you don’t have the time to do when the schedule is like it is. There are some benefits to it.
Certainly, over the long haul, some time off and the fact that the team was able to get some wins while he was away are good things.
How do you weigh up putting Auston Matthews back in the middle of Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting versus keeping John Tavares there?
Keefe: I really didn’t weigh it. That line had been going so well. I don’t think it would be fair to Auston, frankly, with the way that he was playing, for him to come back and then have things changed on him.
The fact that we got a look at John in that spot is good and healthy for us. It’s maybe something we can go to down the line. In this case, with Auston coming back, I think it makes sense to go back to what was working for him.
What are you looking for the group to take forward defensively from the last couple of wins?
Keefe: The results, first of all. When you commit to that, the results are there for you. You can be comfortable in that. Also, we talked this morning about it being two third periods in a row where we have had leads and out-chanced the opposition.
There is something to be said there for how we kept playing and pushing but also how defending, locking down the neutral zone, and breaking out efficiently leads to offense and chances that go the other way. There are opportunities for us to grow our lead and for our guys to get their offense that way.
We have to get comfortable in those spots. The way that our team has dug in here has really served as a great example to us of what we are capable of. That is what we have been asking for. It is not just the structure piece and the commitment to it. It is more physicality and finishing plays quicker so that we can get the puck back quicker. That has been the biggest thing.
It is a difficult thing to do day in and day out, but that is what it takes.
Is there a reason you can point to as to why Pierre Engvall has been such a good fit on the David Kampf and Ilya Mikheyev line?
Keefe: The only thing I can say, really, is about Pierre’s skill set that he has. He is a big guy who can skate the way he does and possess the puck the way he does. You have three really good puck transporters, whether they can skate it from one end to the other themselves, or if they skate out of trouble and find a pass to keep the play going. Those skill sets play out very well together.
Pierre — it has been a battle for him to really take a hold of a top-nine spot. With that, comes more regular ice time and more regular rotation. When you are not in that top nine, it is a challenge that you have to accept as a young player to take advantage of the minutes and the opportunities that you do get.
It is a challenge and it is different. When you get up in that top nine, you can get into the flow of things a lot more. Pierre has been really pushing for that. I think we are at that spot now where he has taken that opportunity a while back when he got it and he just hasn’t let it go. That line hasn’t missed a beat. Pierre has been an important part of it.
That is kind of where we are at. It has led us now to shuffling things around a little bit here. He was sort of the guy who was always going down to the fourth line, and now it is forcing us to make some decisions, whether it is Kerfoot or Kase or others that go down there.
I think that is really healthy for our team, not only because we have a line that is really rolling, but because of that, we have been able to spread out our lines a little bit better. I think, whether it is Kerfoot or Kase down on that fourth line, it gives us a lot better depth and stability throughout the lineup.
Who will come out of the group of 12 tomorrow night with Auston Matthews back?
Keefe: We will see. We are going to talk about it as a group. I haven’t communicated it because there was no real need to today. I haven’t talked to the players yet about who would come out. We are going to talk about that and look at it. You can probably get a sense of it from the shell of the lineup we had out there.
Erik Källgren tomorrow night?
Keefe: Källgren, yep.
Have you seen him smile yet?
Keefe: I am sure there are some smiles going on there. I talked to him after the game very briefly last night. He was pretty stoic. He is keeping his emotions in check. I am sure — or at least I hope — that he is enjoying this. He certainly should be. He and his family should be enjoying it. At the same time, there is a professionalism and a business-like attitude that is keeping him working.
I thought he really worked in practice today. He was strong and solid again. That is just another step in the process for him to continue to earn the confidence of himself and the group. To come back out today in practice and battle and keep the puck out of the net again is really good.
How much does how calmly Källgren plays in the net bleed into the group?
Keefe: He plays confidently. He plays at the top of his crease. He is square to pucks. There are times when some rebounds and stuff are staying alive, but he is finding ways to get to the next puck. He is seeing the puck well through traffic. Those are all signs of a confident goalie who is just trusting his instincts, his abilities, and what he has trained all of these years for.
He has played goal for a long time. It just seems like he has come out with that confidence to just continue to do the things that have gotten him here — the things that have helped him win a championship for his time last year.
It has been great. The players have rallied around it and have helped him out. That is what we have been talking about: The players have a duty to do a job in front of the goalie no matter who is in the net. They have done that here for Källgren.
Do you sense that William Nylander is starting to get his swagger back a little bit?
Keefe: I think so. He is skating a lot better both ways. I think that is fair to say. He is starting to come on a little bit more. You are noticing him a lot more and he is on the puck a lot more — both having it and working to get it back. Those are the signs I am looking for from him.
You could see Nylander boxing guys out in his own crease recently. Has he made an effort in his own end of things to be taking care of big forwards and those kinds of things?
Keefe: It is a good observation. There have been some really good examples of him doing that. He is not a center, so he doesn’t spend a lot of time down there, but there are some rotations that happen throughout a game that, as a winger, you will end up down there. When it has been his turn to defend the net front, I think he has done a good job.
It is all part of what I am talking about in terms of engagement. When you are engaged in the game, it is in all three zones. It doesn’t matter what the game calls for, you are in it. You are not just waiting for the game to come to you or waiting for a puck. You are engaged in all facets of the game.
That is what we need from every one of our players. We have seen more signs of that from Will here recently.