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

After practice on Tuesday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed the injury to John Tavares, the plan at center ice Tavares’ absence, prospects Alex Steeves, Nick Robertson, and Pontus Holmberg’s bids for a roster spot, and the opportunity available on the blue line if Rasmus Sandin were to sign a contract and join the group at training camp.

Practice Lines – Sep. 26

What does the John Tavares injury do to your team and your plans to start the season?

Keefe: Obviously, he is a huge part of our team. It does alter the plan for sure.

We have played without guys before. For the remainder of the camp, there are additional opportunities for guys to step up and fill in that space. You are not going to replace John, but it does create extra opportunities for us to look at others and for others to step up and take advantage of that opportunity.

At the same time, of course, John and his medical team will do all they can to get him back as soon as possible.

Do you envision using Alex Kerfoot and Calle Jarnkrok at center in his absence?

Keefe: I have not had a whole lot of time to process, but obviously, we have been putting Alex there throughout camp. Jarnkrok has the ability to play up the middle. We have been really happy with Holmberg’s camp here so far. We have a number of different options. In the time that we have remaining, we will look at those.

Why did you decide to put Kerfoot at center to start the camp? Did you think you might need him there throughout the season?

Keefe: We looked at it as an option for us. We thought that maybe by this point we might sort of go away from it. We liked the look through the first game. We like how things have come together around him — not just with all of the guys he has played with, but the other lines and wingers. We have kept him there for now.

With John being out, we will look closer at keeping him there. We might look closer at Jarnkrok at some point as well. Alex is a guy to me that do different things for our team. We will see how the depth of our group comes together. That itself might determine where we use him.

Is Pontus Holmberg more ready than you thought he would be?

Keefe: I think so. I think that is fair to say. I have been really impressed by what I have seen from him. He came out and spent a little bit of time down the stretch with the Marlies. I didn’t see a great deal of him, but I know they liked him. I was able to watch some video. Really, for me, it wasn’t until watching him closely in Traverse City…

For him, he has the time with the Marlies, he has an offseason where he spent time in Toronto at the facility training with everybody, and he is getting more comfortable with English. That is a thing for him. English isn’t quite where it needs to be or, frankly, where it is with most Swedes that come over. That has gotten better. I think he is just far more comfortable.

For me, seeing him for the first time, I think he is right there and in the mix. We are really happy with him.

Is there one part of his skill set that stands out?

Keefe: Smarts and reliability. He plays hard but also has a good skill set. When the puck hits his stick, he makes a good, hard, crisp pass. He can shoot the puck. He has really good habits and details away from the puck. I think he is just another really good, smart, versatile player that maybe doesn’t have one thing that really pops but is really good at a lot of things. You can do a lot with that as a team.

Does it really speak to the need for depth given there have been so many injuries already in training camp?

Keefe: Yeah, no doubt. It is no secret that you need to have depth. It comes at various times. We hope that this is the time where we need it and that we can be healthy the rest of the way.

The good news is that at this point, while there is the potential for guys to miss time — Engvall, Tavares, Muzzin, Liljegren — nothing seems to be too serious to the point where we can expect to be close to full health if not on opening day then not far after that.

How has Muzzin’s skating gone?

Keefe: It has gone well. I am told he is going to join us for practice on Wednesday. That is positive. He probably won’t do everything that we do in the practice, but he will be out there.

For the jobs you have open, is it an open competition for the guys who are on the bubble?

Keefe: I would say so, especially as these injuries continue to come. The way we have approached it is that we just have to watch.

Obviously, we have the experienced guys we have talked about — and those guys we have a good sample on who they are and what they are — but you still want to see them in the mix with guys who are competing and haven’t played in the league.

Those players that haven’t played in the league — whether it is someone like McMann, who hasn’t played at all, or someone like Steeves, Abruzzese, or Robertson, who have had opportunities — we are just going to watch and sort it out. We have Malgin in that mix of experienced players who have come back here.

For me, that is the exciting time of camp. We have a lot of guys who I think are in the same cluster and will have to sort themselves out. We will have a good look now with the injuries that continue to pile up here.

When you look at some of the opportunities on the backend right now with some of the injuries, how much opportunity would there be for a guy like Rasmus Sandin if he was available?

Keefe: It goes without saying that there would be a tremendous opportunity there. You are seeing that now with guys like Benn and Mete and the opportunity they are getting.

That is part of it, but there is a business side to it that is out of my control. For the guys that are here, you are seeing that there is great opportunity there — both opportunities to make our team, grab a role, and get comfortable with your teammates, but also just getting prepared to play an NHL season.

How has Alex Steeves looked to you at camp so far?

Keefe: I think he is doing well. I think he is getting better every day, too. He had a good game when he played the other night. He obviously got the one goal — an effort goal to get space at the net where it goes off his foot. He was in the right spot for it. He really earned the empty net goal as well.

I thought he followed it up with a terrific practice on Monday where he shot the puck in the net a ton and really stood out there. He is another guy who is really doing what he can to stand out, which is to work, compete, and make good on the opportunities that he gets. He is definitely a guy we have noticed out here.

How about Nick Robertson? He mentioned he has put on weight. Are you seeing it in practice?

Keefe: Nick looks stronger to me. Over the last few years, we have seen that he has fallen a lot in battles and things. I don’t see that nearly as often. I think he is in the battle far more frequently. He looks a little quicker to me, too, at the same time.

We have been happy with him. He is working and giving us everything that he has. We don’t question that at all. It is just a matter of whether he can translate that into impacting the game positively.

We are going to continue to work with him on that. He is going to get lots of opportunities to play in lots of games the rest of the way. He will probably play in both games this week. We will just continue to watch him.

In the first training session, you stopped it. Why did you feel it was necessary to do that?

Keefe: There are always times when they aren’t sharp for whatever reason, but they are able to dial it in and get going. We weren’t able to do that as quickly as I would like to see us do it. We needed to shock the system a little bit and get their attention. We were able to do that and move on.

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