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

After practice on Monday, Sheldon Keefe discussed Michael Bunting’s goal-scoring drought, the increased emphasis on physical play at this time of year, and provided status updates on his injured players.

Practice Lines – April 11

Notes: Maintenance day for Auston Matthews; Wayne Simmonds was absent through illness; Erik Kallgren will start on Tuesday vs. Buffalo as Jack Campbell is dealing with a “minor issue” (not rib related).

Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have mentioned that there has been a little more emphasis on physicality. Why do you feel that you have been preaching that message a little bit more?

Keefe: We have been preaching that since day one of training camp. I think our players are recognizing the time of year and how important that is to bring. We have been trying to play the last 20 or so games here to this point as a team that is prepping for the playoffs, prepping to play in those environments, and creating those environments ourselves. That is really it.

We have been talking about it since day one of camp, but there has certainly been more attention and detail on it. The players have really bought into it and are seeing the benefits of it — not only defensively because we kill plays a lo quicker but the puck comes back to us a lot quicker, too. There are a lot of benefits to it.

Are you satisfied with the level of physicality or do you think there is another level to go?

Keefe: I think there is another level to go to for sure. We have liked what we have seen from our guys in terms of their commitment to it. The time of year and the playoffs and such will naturally bring it to another level that is required, but I have seen an uptick for sure in that area. It has been great to see.

In the last couple of games, in particular, someone like Mitch has really taken the lead in that for us, shown the way, and set the standard. If a guy like him who is playing as much as he is and does so much for our team can commit like that, every single one of our guys can follow suit.

Michael Bunting hasn’t scored in a while, but it’s not like the line hasn’t been productive. Are you still noticing him making the impact that you need him to make?

Keefe: Auston is scoring all the goals and taking all the goals from the line (laughs). Those guys are working so well together that is just the way it is working right now. I still see Bunts making tons of great contributions.

On Auston’s second goal the other night, Bunts stretches the neutral zone out, gets a puck back, bumps it back to Auston with a ton of speed, and he is hard to handle when that is the case. It is a very subtle play there.

Another one that stands out to me is Morgan Rielly’s goal in Dallas. Bunts made a play just inside the blue line. He might have actually been outside of the blue line at the time, but he made a lateral play across the ice into space for Mitch to skate onto. He made a play to Morgan through a seam for the goal.

With the Dallas one, he gets a second assist on that play, but to me, he makes the whole play because of his placement of the puck and his awareness to do that. Obviously, the things he does physically in terms of going to the net, competing, drawing penalties, and all of these things bring great value to our team even when he is not scoring.

I do believe the goals will certainly come for him. He filled the net in practice today. That is a good sign. Obviously, at this time of the year, we don’t really care who is scoring the goals as long as we are getting the goals and putting ourselves in a position to win. That has been the case. Bunts continues to play a big role in that.

What stands out to you about Bunting’s ability to endure a lot of abuse despite not being the biggest guy?

Keefe: He is certainly able to stick his nose into everything. At times, you wonder if he is going to be able to get up, but he bounces back and doesn’t miss a shift. He regroups himself. At times, he might lose his temper a little bit, but he is able to deal with a lot.

As we talked about, he is an ultra competitor. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He sticks his nose into everything. You can’t have enough of those types of guys.

I am sure Bunts wants to put one in, get the goal, and get it off his mind, but we try to reassure him that he is making a lot of great contributions to one of the top lines in the league right now. He should continue to be confident that the other things he is doing outside of scoring are helping that line and thus helping us win.

With 10 games to go, ideally, when would you like to settle on your three defense pairings?

Keefe: I don’t know. I think the biggest thing is to manage the situation in terms energy of the players, the health of the players, and the schedule.

In some ways, we have been settled here. We have been trying to give a run of games to the pairs we have had of late. It is a consistent battle for us to find consistency, but also the schedule is what it is.

We don’t have a lot of time. We do need to try some different things and get some different looks in order to be confident that when the regular season comes out, we are ready to go.

I don’t know that we will ever necessarily settle in the final games, but I will be confident that what we start with in game one of the playoffs will be something that we are comfortable with and that we have given it ample time to play itself out.

Now that you have had a good sample size of William Nylander on David Kampf’s line, how would you evaluate him on that line and the line in general?

Keefe: I think it has been good. Willy has done well with it. In the last few games, it hasn’t been as good. Pierre Engvall is a real key to the line. Willy is Willy and has the ability to drive it himself, but to have someone like Pierre who can play with pace, get up the rink, and get the puck into good spots on the line is an important factor. It hasn’t been as good in the last few.

I have really liked what it has done in terms of how Mikheyev has fit with Kerfoot and Tavares. There are those elements at play. Any time you make a switch in lines, that is the challenge, right? You have to look at not just how it might affect one player — such as Willy — but what are the other impacts that it is having throughout the lineup? You are always consistently weighing those things against one another.

For right now, we really like the way it has played out.

Do you expect that you will have Rasmus Sandin available to you between now and the end of the regular season?

Keefe: It is tough to say. There is no real timeline on him yet. He has been skating regularly and seems to be progressing well. From what I am told, he still seems to be a ways away. I don’t know if he is going to be available before the regular season ends or not. If anything, I suspect it wouldn’t be until that final week. He is continuing to put the work in to do everything he can to be available.

Does the same go for Ondrej Kase? Is he dealing with a concussion?

Keefe: Same thing. He is on LTI. He is not even eligible to come back for a little bit yet. They are taking their time with him. At this point, it is the same thing. He is not close to returning.

He is dealing with a concussion, yeah.

Is Jake Muzzin out for tomorrow?

Keefe: Yeah, Muzz will be out for tomorrow. He is dealing with something right now. It is not related to the injury he just returned from. He is dealing with something. He is less than 100% here and needs a couple of days of treatment for that to settle down a little bit.

He is not going to play tomorrow. We are hopeful or expecting that he will be available after that.