After practice on Thursday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed Rasmus Sandin agreeing on a contract with the team, updates on his injured players (Fraser Minten, Pierre Engvall, and Jake Muzzin), and the possibility of using Mitch Marner on defense in certain situations.
Practice Lines – September 29
Leafs practice lines
Bunting – Matthews – Marner
Nylander – Kerfoot – Jarnkrok
Blandisi – Abruzzzese – Gogolev
Clifford, Douglas, Slaggert, Ellis
Kokkonen – Rielly
Giordano – Brodie
Muzzin – Miller
Hellickson – Kapcheck
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) September 29, 2022
Leafs lines in practice
Aston- Reese – Kampf – Aube-Kubel
Robertson – Holmberg – Malgin
Steeves – Shaw – Simmonds
McMann – Der-Arguchintsev – Anderson
Kral – Holl
Mete – Villeneuve
Rifai – Hollowell
Pietroniro – Hoefenmeyer
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) September 29, 2022
What is your reaction to Rasmus Sandin getting under contract, and what is the plan from here?
Keefe: We are thrilled to get him signed and get him on his way here. It will be a good opportunity for him and we will welcome him here. He will go through a process like everybody else in terms of his medicals, physicals, and all of the various things that the medical and performance staff goes through with our players. We will determine from there where he is at and get him on the ice shortly thereafter.
What kind of role can he play for your team this season?
Keefe: As a young player with that level of talent he has and the experience that he has gained in the league, I think he is at the right age now to really start to blossom. He has the experience of both knowing his strengths and his weaknesses or areas he needs to continue to work on to get better.
In this situation, he is going to have to come in and get himself up to speed with the guys, which I don’t expect to take too long. He is an important young player for us that brings a lot to our defense group with his skill set.
Was it good to see Jake Muzzin back participating in a full practice?
Keefe: Yeah, it is great. Another good day for him. He got through everything here today. In talking to him after, he felt good. All positive on that front.
What is Fraser Minten’s injury status?
Keefe: He banged up his wrist in the game he played the other night — the exhibition game. He is going to miss some time. I don’t foresee him getting back into this camp.
Any indication or guesses on when Pierre Engvall might be back as a participant in practice?
Keefe: No guesses other than I saw Pierre on his way out to the ice today when he was going to skate on his own. He said yesterday was his best day. That continues to be positive as well. I have nothing in terms of a timeline for him joining our team.
Morgan Rielly was saying he was feeling more comfortable on the right side having gotten some reps there.
Keefe: Yeah, he has been wanting to take more reps there. I think he sees the situation and knows the more flexibility we have, the better. He has sort of volunteered to take those reps and get himself out there, which I think is great. We played a game last night with six left-handed shots — at least we started with six left-handed shots.
You can kind of see that we need to have more flexibility with all of our players to be able to play both sides. Morgan hasn’t had a great deal of that. To get that at this time of year is important.
In terms of how it all shakes out, we will have to see where everybody is at, including Rasmus and Muzzin, and get them up and running. We will work with it through there. I wouldn’t say we have a leading candidate necessarily, but I haven’t lost sight of the fact that Rielly and Brodie works very well for us.
A lot of talk about forwards playing defense last night. Mitch Marner was taking some shifts back there next to Rielly. How would you assess his suitability to play back there situationally?
Keefe: The way it worked last night with the two forwards going back on defense was a real good sample and look at it in a game situation, but it is something Mitch and I have been talking about. I am not sure if you have caught it to this point, but throughout camp, he has been taking some reps on the backend.
We have been talking about it since camp began that there could be opportunities in games where we might want to give him a look on defense, whether we are trying to score a goal or playing from behind. We might give him some opportunity there and see what that looks like. That is something we will continue to look at through the preseason and make a determination from there on how we might use it.
Do you foresee a time, with the way the sport is evolving, when we could see less rigidity around positions on the ice?
Keefe: In a lot of ways, we are kind of there, which leads you to this evolution of looking at it more seriously with the four forwards. I don’t know if it’ll ever get to five, but I think it is just that the players themselves have to have a certain skill set, intelligence, speed, and instinct.
All of those things are really important. We hope last night was a one-off, but players move around now. Forwards end up having to cover and play on defense far more frequently probably than in the history of our game. Having those skill sets is important.
Naturally, players younger and younger are going to come up with those kinds of skill sets; plus, we are going to see a lot more forwards converted to defensemen at younger ages. If you look at the way Cale Makar plays the game, there are a lot of young kids growing up that are going to want to look like that.
There is so much opportunity there. How close we are to making it on a full-time basis I am not quite sure, but I think it is something to continue to experiment with.
Mitch is a right shot and a highly offensive player who can help us. It allows us to put on another high-impact forward like Nylander in that case. It is something worth looking at for us, I think.
When you are considering getting creative like that with Mitch, is there data that you are looking at, or is it just that you know you can trust him?
Keefe: There are areas of our game where we think offensively we would like to improve upon in terms of the transition and in our play along the offensive blue line in the offensive zone. Morgan is a real standout for us in terms of what he can contribute offensively there. At times, you want to have another guy — in particular, a right-shot — to be able to help with that.
Having Rasmus in the fold helps. Certainly, Brodie, Muzzin, and Giordano can contribute in their own way, but it is a bit of a different feel there with someone like Mitch. To me, the more and more I watch how we move around in the offensive zone, Mitch spends a lot of time up at the blue line as it is.
On the power play, he plays up there quite a bit. It was just a little more natural for me to consider it because he has done it at the NHL level. He has run the power play from the top in a five-forward look in junior. He has lots of experience doing that, so that is why you consider him. The more and more you watch the clips, the more it stands out.
It is more knowing Mitch’s skill set, and I have a pretty good library of clips where he is the forward on the shift but is in the defense spot quarterbacking things and at times even defending. I think that is sort of why we came to that conclusion.
Has Alex Kerfoot adapted his skill set in order to play the center position regularly for you?
Keefe: With experience, the more comfortable it becomes. I think that would really be it. I don’t know if his skill set has changed. That has always been there. He hasn’t spent a great deal of time at center in this NHL career, but now with us, he has moved around enough there that I think he is confident and comfortable there.
I still think he is going to be a guy who will move around our lineup. That is just the type of player he is and how it works in our lineup with our team the way it is built when healthy. I like what he has done with us through the camp so far. He looks good and confident.
We have talked a lot about Kerfoot’s versatility and how he serves the team by doing whatever is required. Last night was a great example of that. I think we have another guy who is very similar in Jarnkrok, who can do things like he did last night but also play both positions at center and on the wings.