After practice on Wednesday, Sheldon Keefe discussed preparations for the playoffs for the rest of the week, the plan for managing a meaningless final regular-season game, the importance of Mitch Marner pursuing the 100-point milestone, Timothy Liljegren’s emergence this season, and Jake Muzzin’s importance heading into the playoffs.
Is this a rare situation where you prepare for Friday’s game but you also kind of have to have what’s after the game in mind in terms of preparation?
Keefe: Yeah, it is. Up until last night, we were still playing for something. At this point, the only true thing you are playing for now is for game one of the playoffs. You have to play game #82, so how can you use that game to be ready for the playoffs? That is to do your best to remain healthy but also to remain sharp, have good habits, and maximize your practice and preparation time off the ice. That is really where our focus is.
We opted to give the players the option of what they wanted to get out of today. We had a team meeting. I still feel like there is a bit of a sense that we are still recovering from our road trip — the travel, the lack of sleep, and those kinds of things. We are back in the building today, but players are all in different spots in terms of how they are feeling.
Today was a good day for those who wanted to get on the ice and get some work in. Those that wanted to keep their work off the ice could do that. We will get everybody out [on the ice] tomorrow.
What is your plan in the net for Friday?
Keefe: We have a pretty good sense of what we’ll do, but we didn’t have those conversations with any of the players — not just goalies, but any of the players today. We will have those conversations tomorrow and then make the appropriate decisions for Friday.
Mitch Marner still has a chance at 100 points. Will that factor in when you talk to him about whether he plays on Friday?
Keefe: Yeah, it does and it will. At the same time, much like I felt with Auston yesterday, I was happy for him to get that and have that moment, but in my mind, he is already a 60-goal scorer. You round up, especially when you factor in the games that he missed and the pace that he is on.
I feel the same about Mitch. He is already a 100-point guy to me. That is how you describe players: you’re a point-a-game guy, or you’re a 100-point guy. You don’t really talk about what comes in between. Mitch is right there. He has had an unbelievable season for us and is a huge part of everything we have done and accomplished in the regular season here as a team. He shares in the individual accomplishments such as what Auston had last night with 60 goals.
No matter where all of our players finish up, we have had a number of guys that have had career years here. That is part of why we have had success as a team. It is a big reason why we are excited going into the playoffs.
There are three players on the team with over 1,000 games and no Stanley Cup. When it comes to motivation for the players to do things beyond themselves or you as a coach in your pre-game talks, how much does wanting to win for those three guys factor in?
Keefe: There is no question that our guys have great respect and appreciation for how hard it is to win and respect for those players that have played a really long time in the league, given so much to the game, and continue to push hard to win. It is part of the story, but there is no shortage of motivation or inspiration to win the Stanley Cup.
Every player has their own thing. It is personal to them and their family. That is why you play and that is what you compete for. Within the room, there are all sorts of different stories and different things that tie into it as well. Collectively, it brings the group together knowing you have to rely on one another and everybody has to come together to do their part.
Those veteran players that we have are a part of our story.
Why has Timothy Liljegren been able to take the steps that he has this season?
Keefe: Increased experience in the league is the big thing. He had a great opportunity right from day one of training camp that we provided him. He has taken advantage of it.
He has had his ups and downs, especially in these last couple of months. It coincides with Giordano’s arrival in the last little bit that he has found another level in his play. Giordano contributes to that with his presence, but it is also at the point now where Lily is coming to the end of his first full season in the NHL, and you can see him taking those steps.
There are times when you can still see some of that inexperience come through, and yet he seems to be reducing the number of times you see that. That has been the best part. Because of his play in Jake Muzzin’s absence, Mark Giordano’s arrival, and Ilya Lyubushkin’s arrival, our team has taken a big step here in the last while, especially defensively.
We had Sandin and Liljegren play together for a long time there. Those guys were doing well. Since Giordano has arrived, that pairing and our team as a whole has really gotten better. Lily has been a big part of it.
Did something specific happen for him as a person and player to figure it out?
Keefe: He just needed more time to come into his body, figure out the league, find his place, pick his spots, and recognize what he can and can’t get away with in the league. That takes time.
He is still a really young guy. He has been in the organization a long time here now and spent time in the minors, but he is still a very young guy. Had he not played in the AHL at 18, you would have a different perspective on just how young he is.
He has had great experiences. He won a Calder Cup at 18 years old and played a good role on that team. Very similarly, he got better and better as the season went on. He has certainly taken steps to the point where he is absolutely a big factor in the conversation of what our six is going to look like in game one.
How difficult is it going to be to sort out your top six on defense for game one?
Keefe: It is going to be very difficult. It is a daily discussion for us. I don’t know if we ever reach a solution when we finish the meeting. We kind of push it to the next day, to be honest. That is really where we are at.
Will the opponent factor into it?
Keefe: I think the opponent will factor in. Some of the matchups will factor in. Also, the knowledge that we have liked how things have gone for our team in terms of how guys have come in and out when we have moved things around at different times. They have adjusted.
We just feel like that is probably the way it is going to be. What it looks like in game one won’t necessarily mean that is what it looks like in game two. All of our guys will have to stay ready.
Right now, we have seven healthy guys. If Sandin becomes healthy, he becomes eight. Carl Dahlstrom hasn’t played a ton for us this season, but any time he has, we have really liked what he has done for us. He is another big body on the left side. He has done a really great job with the Marlies.
We have good depth there. Getting Muzzin and Sandin healthy goes a long way to that. These will continue to be daily discussions for us. I don’t think they are going to end once the playoffs begin.
Is the plan for Rasmus Sandin to play on Friday?
Keefe: He is going to practice tomorrow. That will be his first official team practice. Frankly, even if he had practiced today, from what I am told, they looked at Friday as being aggressive for him. With that being said, it is unlikely at this point that he plays this week.
It has been a tough season for Jake Muzzin. What did you think of his return, and what do you think he can give you in the playoffs after what he has been through?
Keefe: It has been a tough season for Muzz for sure. He continues to battle through. He is going to have to continue to do that. He is not going to be playing at 100%. That is the reality. He played last night, got through the game, and felt good. He feels good today to the point that, on an optional day, he was out on the ice again and continued to get work in. That is very encouraging.
That is what I am most concerned with now. The expectation is he will play again on Friday and get another game in.
In terms of what he brings: He is a big guy who is poised, physical, and brings a presence in our room. He has a great perspective. He has won the Stanley Cup. He gives us a lot of additional depth and options.
We have seen it in previous years. We think we are insulated greater this season with the addition of Mark Giordano, the addition of Ilya Lybushkin, and the progression of our young players like Sandin and Liljegren, but in the previous two seasons that I have been here, we were in pretty good spots in the playoffs, we lost Jake Muzzin, and we didn’t recover.
There are other reasons that go into that, of course, but losing Muzz is one of those reasons. He means a lot to our team. I think our defense is better now. I believe we can sustain those kinds of things greater than we have been able to do in the past, but it just goes to show [he is important to our team].
What did it mean to be front and center in a team picture with this group this year?
Keefe: It is special to be able to coach the Leafs no matter what the team behind you has accomplished. It is a special thing.
This group, in particular, has given me lots of reasons to be proud of the work they have put in. To get to this point and be in, in my opinion, the most competitive division in the NHL and go into the first round of the playoffs with home-ice advantage is a testament to the work that the group has put in.
It is nice to sit there. We’d like to have another team photo when this is all said and done with some trophies there.