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

After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed Nick Abruzzese’s upcoming NHL debut on Saturday in Philadelphia, the status of his injured players, and Jack Campbell’s return to the crease this weekend.

Practice Lines – April 1

Notes: Maintenance-day absence for Alex Kerfoot; Jake Muzzin is traveling with the team on the road trip but isn’t expected to play on Saturday; Nick Abruzzese will debut in Philadelphia on Saturday; Ilya Lyubushkin is expected to play on Saturday; Jack Campbell appears likely to return on Saturday as well; Colin Blackwell will draw back into the lineup over Kyle Clifford.

Is it a maintenance day for Alex Kerfoot, and will Nick Abruzzese play tomorrow?

Keefe: It is a maintenance day for Kerf, and Abruzzese will play, yes.

What have you seen from Abruzzese in the time you have had him here?

Keefe: Very smart player. When I watched him on video and when I got all the reports, that is the biggest thing that stands out: his ability to process the game. In any of my discussions with him, whether it is doing video or just having a conversation, with some of the questions that he asks, he is just a smart player who I think is going to be able to adjust to that part of the game quickly.

I watched a lot of him playing in the Olympics. While it is certainly not the NHL, I was particularly focused on the game against Canada, which was essentially made up of players I know very well, whether I coached against them in the NHL or AHL, and are all top players at the AHL level, certainly.

Seeing him compete and play the game at that level gives me confidence that he is going to be able to adapt quickly to a more challenging level in the NHL.

Is Ilya Lybushkin good to go?

Keefe: It looks that way. We will see how he wakes up tomorrow and how he is feeling, but it has been nothing but a positive progression for him to this point. The expectation is that he will be available.

Is there a timeline that is coming close on Rasmus Sandin?

Keefe: No. He is still week-to-week.

And Ondrej Kase?

Keefe: There is no timeline attached to that. He is just continuing to increase his activity and things like that. No timeline. He hasn’t been on the ice.

With Lyubushkin back, is it easy to go back to the pairings as they were before?

Keefe: We think so. We had a lot of discussion about that today. We have liked the way those pairings have gone for us, and yet we do, with Giordano’s arrival, want to get a feel for different things to be prepared for whatever might come our way in the playoffs or down the stretch. We have to make sure we continue to monitor that. We are running out of games here.

We will expect to go back to what we had previously, but we are having daily discussions on it. Muzzin’s return is going to force us to change some things just like Lyubushkin being out changed some things. Some of that will happen naturally. We do want to get some looks at some different combinations as we get going here, but for tomorrow, I think we will settle back into what we had.

How do you think the power play has been able to adjust these last few weeks as teams have increased pressure in certain areas?

Keefe: It has taken some time, but I think the guys have found a nice groove there to get the puck to the net. There are some pieces on the breakout and the entries that we have had to adjust to. There has been a lot more pressure there.

Some of it is teams adjusting to us, and some of it is the way the schedule has gone and the teams that we have played and the styles of their penalty kills. That in and of itself has given us something the guys have had to adapt to. That is just how those teams kill no matter who they are playing.

There are pieces of that. You have to monitor it and be as prepared and adaptable as possible because you are always getting different looks. Sometimes they are directly countering something you are trying to do, but sometimes it is just in their own identity and how they play. That in and of itself disrupts your rhythm because the game before you played against a team that kills one way and then suddenly it is a different approach.

Some teams have really aggressive up-ice pressure. Some teams back off the line. Some teams hold the line. Some teams stab at you. Sometimes it is the forward holding the line. Sometimes it is the D. There are all sorts of things happening there that you have to adjust to. The guys have done a good job of that recently.

What gives you confidence about Jack Campbell’s ability to get back in the net and get back to where he was earlier this season?

Keefe:  Since he has been back on the ice, he has worked incredibly hard, which you come to expect with Jack, but he has just looked good. He has battled to keep the puck out of the net. He just looks like he is refreshed. I think that is natural for that to happen when you can separate yourself from the game for a little while.

We wish he remained healthy and all of those kinds of things, but there are some positives that come with being able to take some time away. It is a long season, especially for a guy who plays that position. To get that mental and physical break, there are benefits to come from that.

I think we have seen that in Jack’s approach, his play in practices, and all of those kinds of things. We are excited to get him back in the net.

Knowing he is an emotional guy, is managing the mental side of the game even more important for someone of his character?

Keefe: It is more important for every player — the mental side of it is a challenge, especially in the grind of the season. This is a long season. If you factor in all of the Covid stuff that we have been through and the toll that takes on him, the goaltending position itself, and this market as well, with all of those things, a little break can be a good thing.

Jack’s energy really never has changed, but you can certainly see him having lots of bounce in his step around the room these days. He is excited to get back to playing. He has worked incredibly hard to be ready.

With Florida and Tampa coming up on this road trip, will you know a lot more about where things sit in the standings afterward?

Keefe: We will see. I am not expecting it to be too clear. Things are still very close, and I don’t expect they’ll change too much this week. Certainly, all of the games that are inside your division are that much more important at this point. We played Florida and Boston, and those are really important games for obvious reasons. Now, we are going out on the road and have to do it against Florida again and Tampa.

It is important for us, but let’s keep the focus on Philadelphia for now. We can’t play those games tomorrow. Tomorrow, we are playing Philadelphia, so let’s keep the focus there.