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

After practice on Wednesday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed the decision to line up William Nylander at center in practice, John Tavares and Pierre Engvall’s status for opening night, and the competition in camp heading into the final two games of the preseason.

Practice Lines – October 5

What led you to try William Nylander at center?

Keefe: Willy has done that before and I think has the ability to. Frankly, I wouldn’t read too much into it. If you kind of break it down, it is kind of a placeholder for John in his spot. There are those elements to it.

I think it is important for Willy to get some reps through the camp and all of that. He does play center at times. We might use him there in the final preseason game that we play. We will see how the rest of the week goes and how John’s recovery is looking. We will make some decisions from there.

It was really more that I wanted to get a look at Engvall, Kerfoot, and Jarnkrok today. It was just natural to put Willy in that spot.

Nylander took some faceoffs on the penalty kill. That used to be Jason Spezza’s job. Do you have an opening for a right-handed draw taker there?

Keefe: Yeah, we do. Willy, throughout his career when called upon, is a good right-handed faceoff option. He hasn’t taken many of them in the defensive zone, but we are wanting to see if he can grow his role and usage on the penalty kill.

Having a right-side faceoff guy is important. We have Jarnkork’s addition as well. That can help with that. David Kampf does a pretty good job for us even though it is his offside there. Having additional options is important.

In John Tavares’ case, is there a possibility he could be ready for the start of the season?

Keefe: I don’t think I have ruled that out, but it is all going to be on his recovery. It was a really positive day for him today. Obviously, the way that it would track out in terms of the plan that was set was that he wouldn’t be available, but what his body is telling him is going to dictate that, whether it is sooner or later. It is all going to be a part of it.

We are just going to take it a day at a time with him. Today was a good day for him. Certainly, I am not expecting him to be full go at all this week. That tightens up the timeline pretty good for [opening night].

Is there any more clarity on Pierre Engvall and whether he might be available for opening night?

Keefe: It is looking that way. He has some steps to take here. He is going to practice with us again tomorrow. I think the sense is that he will go home with us tomorrow, and I think he has an appointment to go through later in the week that will kind of set the table for whether he can get into a preseason game.

It is tracking well, but with his injury and the type of injury that it is, it is one that you just have to watch and be careful.

Do you like where the group is at now with one game left in preseason for the main group?

Keefe: The guys want to play for real. We have a lot of guys here who have played together for a long time. You go through things in camp. We have made some adjustments to a few different things we want to do as a team. By and large, a lot of it is similar. Our structure and the way we want to play are pretty similar.

The guys are ready to just push on and get playing for real, I think. I thought we got a lot out of the practice today. It was a really good day — the first time that we have had one group going, too, so that added extra competitiveness and pace. The execution was higher. I liked a lot of that.

By the time we come out of this, I like that we have two games left. The first game in Detroit will be a lot of opportunities for guys competing for spots. Back in Toronto, we expect it to be closer to our group.

With all of that said — and even though we made some decisions for line combinations and things today — there are still positions up for grabs and guys who are still competing. We have a week left here and two preseason games. A lot of things can and likely will change. That is just the nature of it.

So we shouldn’t put too much stock into the players in the non-main-group grey jerseys?

Keefe: Obviously, there are things we want to get a look at it. There is something to that, of course, but there is still a competition going on here. Whether it is guys competing that have really strong games to finish off this week or a great week of practice, or injuries and what have you, a lot of things can change.

As I said the other day, this is as competitive camp as I have had in my time here. I am thinking back to the group we had at this time last season. We had the same number of forwards out there. I don’t think there were as many guys I could see starting the season with us. This year is different. That is healthy for our club.

How good do you think this team can be when you look at what you have got?

Keefe: It is no secret that we have a good club. I think we have established ourselves as an elite team in the NHL. I expect us to be that again.