At the start of 2022-23 training camp, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed the job opening on the wing of John Tavares and William Nylander’s line, Nick Robertson’s opportunity to make the NHL roster, the club’s bottom-six depth, and the plan in net to start the season with Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov.
Can you elaborate on what jobs are available? Do you have a plan for who will play with John Tavares and William Nylander?
Keefe: When I look at it, we look at Matthews, Marner and Bunting as a group that is absolutely going to play together. If you know me by now, what you will see tomorrow on day one of camp is probably going to be perhaps the furthest thing from what we will look like on opening day. It gives us an opportunity throughout this preseason to try different things for what inevitability may occur in terms of injury or players moving around throughout the season. We will get different looks at things as we get going.
In terms of John and Will, right away, I look at it as a job that is available. Guys can compete for that. At different times, we separated John and Will. We will look to explore that as well and see what that looks like.
If you look at players like Calle Jarnkrok — who has incredible versatility and can play multiple positions — he is not unlike Kerfoot in the sense that he can move around and play different spots. To have a right-handed player who can do that gives us lots of options. Obviously, Aube-Kubel coming in is another guy who established himself coming off of winning a Stanley Cup. How can he compete?
A lot of positions for us will be focused around our bottom six and how that comes together. I am excited. To me, this is the most depth and options I have had coming into a camp in terms of what it might look like. I am excited to see that play out. I like what we have available to us. Even up on the line with John, there is an opportunity for players to compete there, too.
From where do you draw your confidence that one or both of your goalies can rebound this year after the seasons they had last year?
Keefe: First of all, both players have incredible talent. That is the first thing. There is great foundation there. Second thing is that both guys have been in our facility here for quite some time putting in the work.
Seeing how they operate — in particular, Matt Murray, who I know well from my time with him in Sault Ste. Marie, but for the first time as a pro, I can see how he has grown, how he takes care of himself, and how he goes about his business with incredible confidence despite what might have happened here in recent years. His success in Pittsburgh winning the Stanley Cup and winning the big game — be it Game 7s, clinching Stanley Cups, and getting it done — gives him incredible confidence. You can see that as he moves around the building. He is just going about his business.
I think that is incredibly important, but it is the foundation, the talent, and the preparation and the motivation that those guys have coming in here. Ilya Samsonov is an incredible talent that we think has more to go give in terms of how he competes on a daily basis and how he can be pushed and challenged. At the same time, he is a guy who took on the President’s Trophy winner in the first round of the playoffs last year and, to me, went toe-to-toe with them.
Those guys re going to push one another. They are both going to challenge the net. I think you will see a split of the duties throughout the season, but of course, it is something that will be monitored and evaluated daily in terms of who gets the net there.
You are not necessarily looking for one of them to emerge as a number one in the next two or three weeks?
Keefe: That is not my focus. My focus is getting these guys ready to play. We are going to need both of these guys. Right away, we are going to start with a back-to-back to open the season. That is a big one for us just to manage the workload for both guys and have them motivated and challenging one another.
Certainly, as the season wears on and you start to prepare to compete in the playoffs, we will look for one guy to start to separate themselves. With Matt Murray’s pedigree in the playoffs, that is a good start, but as I mentioned, Ilya Samsonov has experience being the number one guy in the playoffs as well.
I think we have two really good options there in terms of what their experience has been and what their talent dictates. It is up to us to help support them as a staff and as a team with how we prepare and play in front of them.
Kyle Dubas said the regular season goal is to win the division and the overall goal is to win the Stanley Cup. The division could be tougher than last year. What gives you the confidence that you are the guy and this is the team to accomplish?
Keefe: I don’t know that there has ever been an easy day in this division in this job since I have been here. With that said, we have established ourselves as an elite team in the league. I know we made some changes over the offseason, but I don’t see that changing. Certainly, our approach and our confidence haven’t changed in any way. In fact, if anything, I think we have got increased depth and versatility with some guys who fit in really well in different roles within our team.
We look at the addition of David Kampf a year ago and what that brought to us, and now we add in the likes of Aube-Kubel and Aston-Reese, who is here in camp. We are excited to bring [Aston-Reese] into this mix. We have some really good options there that we think fill those holes.
I have talked about the goaltending, obviously, and how we have great optimism and belief in those guys. Really, the foundation of our team is still in place. Things that we have been through as a team and how we have grown have established us at the top of the league. We expect to continue to be there. It is up to us to earn it and prove it, starting tomorrow.
You have two excellent players in Nylander and Tavares. Sometimes, they have been part of the second line. Sometimes, you have split them up. How do you get those two, who both have high-level talent, to be better together?
Keefe: Really, for me, it doesn’t have a lot to do with how they interact together. It is their individual games and making sure they are both thriving and pushing. That is really my focous.
They are both very talented guys. They both have had a lot of games and have played a lot of hockey together that has been outstanding and dominant. There will be times where that is the case again. There are times where they go out and outperform Auston’s line. That is just the reality of it. We want both lines to be pushing and challenging one another.
Those guys do have the ability to play off of each other very well. It is not always a question to me — as much as the questions come this way and it may appear that way — about those two. It is how it’s affecting the rest of our lineup, and are there benefits to us having them apart? That is really what it comes down to for me.
My focus, especially as we start a new camp here, is to get both players off to a very good start individually and get them rolling. Both have had a strong offseason. Both are incredible workers and do all that they can to prepare for the season. I know that John, in particular, has had a terrific offseason here. It is obviously a different offseason from what he has been through a year ago here. He has certainly put in a lot of work and is excited to get going.
What does Nick Robertson need to do to earn a roster spot out of training camp?
Keefe: He is going to get an opportunity. He is going to play with good players and get an opportunity to establish himself as a player that can contribute on offense. That is who he has been — and what he is — as a guy who is a difference maker offensively, through his time in junior hockey, and then it transferred onto being a very productive American league player.
Can you make those contributions? It hasn’t happened for him in the opportunities he has had at the NHL level for us to this point, but he is still a young player that we believe in and another guy who has had a tremendous summer and has worked extremely hard. He has some games under his belt at the prospects tournament in Traverse City. We expect him to come in and hit the ground running as we get going.
There are the obvious things — the foundation you need to be a productive player in the NHL — which is that you need to be highly competitive, you need to be quick, you need to be physical, and you need to have attention to detail defensively. That gives you a chance to earn extra ice time and let your offense come through.
He is certainly a guy who is going to get a good look and lots of opportunities in this camp. We are going to sit back and evaluate. He is still a very young guy despite the fact that we have talked about him amongst this group for a few years now. He is still a very young player. We are just going to evaluate him like we will anyone else.
You are going to be missing some players due to injury to start camp in Pierre Engvall and Timothy Liljegren. What opportunity might it give you to look at some of the younger players you maybe haven’t seen? Do you hope to have most of your team picked by the time you play those last two exhibition games?
Keefe: Whether it is in camp or the regular season, any time a player gets injured does create opportunities for other people. Amongst the depth that we added this offseason, we added both Benn and Mete as two guys we felt very strongly could play in the NHL if needed. Early on here, it is showing that those were valuable adds for us. Both players are different types of players who bring different types of things. Both have a lot of experience playing in the NHL.
Carl Dahlstrom, at the same time, played in the NHL for us and we were very happy with him. He didn’t get a lot of looks — the way our defense went last season didn’t create a lot of opportunities for Carl — but he is a guy who played very well when he was up and was a very good player for the Marlies. We do have options there for sure.
When you look at some of the younger players coming in, Mac Hollowell is continuing to push as a guy who has been in pro. There are a number of other guys that are coming in as first-year pros, even, that we are going to get to know even better. Kral is entering his second year and was tremendous in camp for us last year. We are excited to watch these guys.
I think the depth is really there for us. It is unfortunate to have injuries. Liljegren, in particular, had such a strong season for us last year. You look at him as a guy that wasn’t in the opening-night lineup for us a year ago, went through camp, and earned his way all the way through. He took advantage of opportunities that came his way. Now, with his injury situation, it will create an opportunity for someone else to get started. We will be excited when Timothy is back to full health.
Kyle Dubas was talking about going into the final year of his contract and said he liked the accountability aspect of it. He doesn’t think it will be a distraction for him. You have been around him for a number of years. What stands out about his ability to maintain focus and deal with pressure?
Keefe: Focus is the big one. I think he is just absolutely focused on the end goal, which is to do what he can to help this team succeed and win a Stanley Cup. That is the sole focus for him.
I have worked with him for quite some time now and have been through a lot with him with different experiences, whether it is contract situations or a number of other things that we have been through as we work together. He has never allowed anything to be a distraction to the group or to himself personally in the job that he has to do.
The Maple Leafs’ 2022-23 training camp roster
Our Camp Crew ⛺️
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) September 21, 2022