Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs practice
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs practice

After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the roster battles playing out in camp on defense and at forward, some of the unheralded younger prospects (Bobby McMann, Curtis Douglas) pushing for spots, and the new heights Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews might be able to reach in 2022-23.

Rosters for the Sep. 23 preseason split-squad games

What are your first impressions of Jordie Benn and Victor Mete?

Keefe: To me, both have been really good. They look like guys who have played in the NHL, which is really what they were signed for — the additional depth for us with guys who, if and when we need them, can play. That is what I have seen so far.

They look to be at a higher level than some of the other depth options out here. There is a bit of a separation for sure between them and some of the guys who don’t have that same experience.

It just goes to show why we added guys like that. You don’t know what you are going to face as you go through a season. We have got some injuries here early in camp that have created some extra opportunity.

With the way we did special teams, we gave everybody an opportunity at that. To me, Mete was a real standout in that regard. It was somewhat eye-opening for us because we weren’t necessarily thinking of it in that light, but he made some plays out there that had us having some discussions about it in the room. That was really positive. I really liked his ability to step in and do that.

Both Mete and Benn know how to defend. They are fine handling the pace of the play, the physicality, and all of those kinds of things. They are used to playing in the NHL, and that stands out here.

Benn is a real simple, hard, and intelligent defender. He is calm. He is not fazed by anything going on around him. He is just going out there, going about his business, and playing. Two good additions to our depth.

Is it a bonus that they played together in Montreal?

Keefe: We had mentioned that a few weeks ago. It was brought up. I hadn’t really thought of it, to be honest, but it is a good thing.

We think both guys have the ability to play the right side. That is another thing. We were looking for some right-handed depth, but we liked these guys better than some of the other options. With the fact that they had played the right side, we felt comfortable with that.

Mete started over there. We will see Benn over there at some point as well. The fact that they are comfortable together is a good thing for sure. The more familiarity you can have with the teammates and the guys you bring in, I think that is healthy.

They are two versatile guys who can help us. That is great.

Do you have an identity in mind for the bottom lines this year? Do you foresee a different look there?

Keefe: I do see it changing. Some of that is going to play itself out throughout camp with how positions get filled. We have a lot of guys who are competing for spots here. Some of them are notable because they have played in the NHL, but we have guys that haven’t played in the NHL as well who are pushing that we haven’t really talked about.

To me, Bobby McMann is looking really good coming off of a great season with the Marlies. Holmberg has been great. He is a guy who I didn’t know a lot about. He came over late in the season. He looked really good in the prospects tournament and here again.

We talked about Robertson before and Steeves. Joey Anderson has played games. He did a good job for us last year and had a great season with the Marlies. He is off to a good start here.

We have a number of guys there that are not really being talked about a lot, but they are guys we are considering. We will see how this all plays out.

What I like is that because we have such great versatility — be it Kerfoot and Jarnkrok’s ability to play center if we need them to — it gives us additional options there. We know what David Kampf can do.

All of these things are going to play out over time. Our bottom six is certainly going to look different because the people are different, but I think there are going to be different elements there that will help us.

How do you weigh giving opportunities to the young guys versus going with what you know with the more veteran options?

Keefe: The natural instinct is to go with the older guy and the experience of course, but I think, for us, I have talked to our older guys. They are competing for their spot. They know that coming in here, whether that is Clifford and Simmonds — guys who have played a long time in the league and have helped us — or a guy like Aston-Reese. These guys have played in the league and they’re comfortable, but they know they are competing for positions. They know that there are young guys who are hungry.

I have told those young guys that they are going to get opportunities to show us that they are ready. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will make some of those decisions, and some of the decisions will play out over time over the course of the season. No matter how the roster shapes out, we can make some decisions after the fact.

How does that dynamic play out in the room in terms of emotions? You love the competition for jobs, but some of the guys are going to leave disappointed.

Keefe: That is the nature of it. It is a sign that we are a good team. Even in a season where we have had some players leave — which is natural as it seems like the top teams are losing guys every year — you still have a lot of competition here. It speaks to the depth we have accumulated and some of the progress players have made at the AHL level.

Add in some of the guys like Aube-Kubel and Gaudette — guys that are coming here with something to prove — and it is a good mix all the way through. There are only so many spots available. The salary cap will play a role in how things play out as well.

Whether it is opening day or whether it is over time as injuries happen and cap space opens up, things will play themselves out. We will make sure we find the right players.

How tantalizing of a prospect is Curtis Douglas as a guy who is 6’8 and can play center?

Keefe: He is a guy who has come a real long way over the last year. He was in this camp a year ago, and coming into the organization, he was a real project. He has worked extremely hard. They love having him around the facility. He does what is asked of him and pushes himself. He puts in a lot of work.

He made great strides with the Marlies to the point where he was one of their more relied-upon and trusted guys. He is kind of coming into his own a bit physically and figuring out what he needs to do to succeed.

He is a guy I am excited about going into this camp. He is a guy who, at the same time, in his — we’ll call it — second year in the organization here, we are expecting to continue to take steps, push, and be one of the guys we are talking about for one of the fourth-line positions on our team.

He is not going to play tomorrow, but I think he has more to give. From the prospects tournament onto this, he is going to have to keep pushing. He will get in later in the preseason and continue to challenge for a spot.

Mitch Marner was saying he put on some pounds over the summer. Are you noticing anything? It is early in camp, but in general, how might it help him?

Keefe: I think it is really early to tell, especially for a player who has such a high bar that he has set for himself with what he is capable of. I think he has definitely looked good. He has had a lot of energy and a lot of speed. You can really see the difference between players of his calibre and a lot of the other guys out there. He is on another level.

Early indications are that he is coming to camp looking good. He doesn’t look like a guy who is resting on whatever he accomplished last season. He is looking to continue to build on it.

What has Auston Matthews shown you that makes you think he’s improved further and can achieve even higher goals?

Keefe: I would go back to the Marner question in that the bar is set so high. It is a little early to make statements like that. Your expectations are so high. I would say that he has delivered on those expectations, as has Mitch. It is clear that he stands out as a world-class player who is on another level on the ice. That is what you want to see. That is what he has done.

He missed a lot of what we are doing right now this time last year. He was skating in camp, but he was not a full participant. That in and of itself helps his cause to get off to a good start and really get going. It took him a little bit last season after missing camp and getting dropped in a few games into the season. That in and of itself will help.

We have all come to know Auston now. He is a guy who doesn’t get comfortable. He is not content both in his own game and what he is able to do to help lead us to greater heights as a team. He is extremely focused. He came into town early to get some work in, be around the team, and help push the group in the skates leading up to camp. That is another sign of his growth and leadership.