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

After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the latest injury updates on Jake Muzzin, Ondrej Kase, and Rasmus Sandin, William Nylander’s production and role on the third line, and taking care of business against non-playoff teams over the next three games.

Practice Lines – April 15

Notes: Jake Muzzin will miss the weekend games with a flare-up of the injury that kept him out of Tuesday’s game against Buffalo. Erik Kallgren will start in Ottawa on Saturday night.

What was behind Jake Muzzin’s absence today?

Keefe: He missed a little bit of time earlier. He was feeling good and played yesterday. I would say things flared up a little bit on him. As a result, he is going to take some time to settle down a bit and see how it responds from there. He won’t be available this weekend. We will reassess him from there.

Was it the hit he took along the boards yesterday?

Keefe: There was no specific hit or specific play. It has nothing to do with the concussions or head injury he was dealing with before. It is just something else he has been dealing with.

Ondrej Kase was skating today. What’s the latest on his status?

Keefe: It is a positive step for him. That is really good. Both he and Sandin have been skating a lot more regularly. He is making really good progress.

For Ondrej to be out there today touching the puck and doing what he loves to do is really good to see. I chatted with him a bit in the lunchroom. He was in good spirits. It seems like it was a good day for him.

Do you hope, plan, or expect to have both back for the playoffs?

Keefe: I am hopeful that they will be available, yeah. There is no timeline on either at this point. They are just continuing to progress. In particular, in Kase’s case, we are going to be cautious and do what is right for him.

Today was a very positive today. The more positive days he can have, we will start to look at it and think about it. Until then, we will just make sure he is continuing to be supported.

What do you like about having William Nylander on that third line with David Kampf?

Keefe: It is a combination of things.

Obviously, having a threat like Willy on the third line makes it a little bit more challenging for teams that generally rely on their top four to play against your best players and get minutes for their bottom pair against guys lower in the lineup. It makes it a little bit more challenging. As a result, we get some favourable matchups for Will.

The other part of it is that when we split it up, the Tavares and Nylander line wasn’t going very well. It changed the dynamic a little bit. We have liked the results since. We have liked how the players have responded and we have liked how the team has responded shift over shift.

Does it help that Ilya Mikheyev is playing so well?

Keefe: Yeah, of course. That has been a big part of it. It has brought a lot to John with the energy and pace he plays with. The reliability of Kerfoot has really helped that line.

At the same time, I think we have seen some positive steps from Engvall as well since playing with Will. That is really what you want: your best people to impact other players. We have seen that.

We like the dynamic. We can switch back at any time. In each game, Will has had shifts with John. He has had shifts with Auston. We haven’t just been static in that line and in that combination. I suspect that will continue.

Do things seem to roll off of William Nylander’s back no problem — more than most, or is it true of all of those kinds of skilled players?

Keefe: I think it is fair to say for all players that have to deal with ups and downs, expectations, and things like that. In Will’s case, especially, he has a really strong belief in himself and his abilities. At times, he needs a push, but his belief in himself doesn’t waver. That is what we like about him.

As I said, I think he has handled this well since we changed the lines up a little bit. As we looked at it, for the most part, his minutes haven’t really been affected, and if they have, it is one of the nights where all of the guys’ minutes are affected by penalty kills, the score, or whatever the case may be.

Most nights, his minutes have maintained the same level of where he has been. That is really what the players want when their play warrants it. They want to make sure they are on the ice, getting in a rhythm and feeling good.

How crucial is it for Nylander to produce at five on five going into the playoffs?

Keefe: That is where most of the game is played, of course, and it is the hardest thing to do. When you look at Auston, that is one of the standout things of what he does: his ability to produce at five on five when it is most difficult. He does so on a level that really nobody in the league competes with.

It is challenging to do that. When you are not in the 1% the way Auston is, it is a lot harder to produce consistently at five on five, but that is ultimately the goal: to get multiple lines that are dangerous, have the ability to score, are capitalizing on the other team’s mistakes, and at the same time, are earning their own offense.

Getting Willy producing is an important piece. You also have the Mikheyevs, the Engvalls, the Kerfoots, and the Buntings — these kinds of guys contributing is an important piece for us. It is not just on Auston and Mitch.

The power play has been a little quieter lately. Did you like the urgency you saw from the group in practice?

Keefe: Yeah. I liked it today for sure. We have been thinking about and talking about our power play of late. We haven’t liked it for the last little bit, but we went back, dug into it, and I spent some time with Spencer [Carbery] this morning.

How quickly we forget that before coming back and playing these last three games on home ice, we went on an eight-game stretch where we were at 42%.  We are not going to overreact with a tough little slide here. We just have to make sure we get back to it.

You beat another playoff team last night. You now have three in a row against non-playoff teams. How do you get them to carry it over against these next few opponents?

Keefe: We talk about it. We show it to them. We talk about the fact that it is our game and there is really only one way to play. I think it is maybe a little overstated with the playoff vs. non-playoff thing. We have played some really good hockey games against non-playoff teams here of late.

Buffalo, of course, has been a handful for us, but Ottawa is also a team that plays really well against us. They are playing good hockey now. You see their win last night. They have won big games. They have a lot of young, exciting players — not unlike Buffalo in that sense. It has been a long time since have seen them, but they will be ready to play.

That is the biggest thing for us: making sure that we are ready, and that we enjoy having nights like last night and competing like that. It is, at times, maybe a little more challenging at this time of year to drum up that level of urgency and consistency, but we are still competing for home ice here and we are still competing to solidify ourselves in the standings.

My expectation is that our guys will be ready to play and ready to compete. It is a tough schedule for us coming up in this next little stretch with the back-to-back games and the quick turnaround for Philadelphia. We will just get the guys focused and talk about our game. It is really just going to come down to our willingness to compete.

Jack Campbell was asked about Tom Wilson last night and said he is a nice guy who he met at the All-Star Game, and that he doesn’t mind some contact. What did you make of how Jack responded to the incident and his game in general?

Keefe: We talked about Will’s ability to let things roll off his back. I think that is the nice thing with Jack there just to refocus. I was concerned that he would be injured on a play like that. I was happy he was not and was able to continue. [Wilson] didn’t look like a very nice guy in that moment.

Were you too young, or do you have any memories of what Mike Bossy did in the game with the Islanders?

Keefe: Probably a little too young in terms of myself watching it and witnessing it but not too young to grow up knowing the legend of Mike Bossy, seeing the highlights, the exploits, his ability to score goals with such consistency right from the time he entered the league, and the disappointment that all hockey fans had that his career was cut short. As you are growing older, you are seeing the grace and professionalism that he had off of the ice.

It is a sad day not just for his family but for the hockey world.