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

After practice on Monday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed Denis Malgin making the team for opening night over Nick Robertson, the other final cuts, and John Tavares’ status for Wednesday night in Montreal.

Final Cuts & Practice Lines – October 10

What did Denis Malgin do to earn the spot next to Tavares and Nylander in practice today over someone like Nick Robertson? 

Keefe: In Malgin’s case, first of all, he is a guy who is coming in here at 25 years old. He already has 200 NHL games to his record. He has produced during that time. He has had some time away here, and from what I have seen, he has grown and developed his game.

That is really what I wanted to do in this camp and preseason — just watch and see where he is at mentally and let him use the opportunities he was getting to prove he can play in the NHL and help our team. I think he has done that.

He produced at a high rate — right near the top of the league in scoring — and also worked really hard away from the puck. He found ways to create no matter which game or what the competition was like. It seemed like he was still making his mark on each of the games. He was good and competitive in our practices.

To that end, we felt we would give him that opportunity. The fact that he is protected by requiring waivers works in his favour in this case.

In Nick Robertson’s case, it works against him. That is the reality of the situation we are in with the salary cap and carrying a really tight and short roster. We are going to have players you would otherwise have in the NHL that are going to have to start in the American league.

Everything I said about Malgin, Robertson did just the same. It was a tough decision. We saw tremendous growth in camp. We are very encouraged about where his game is at. We have all the confidence that he will be back here when needed.

How do you stress to a young player that it is a case of numbers not adding up in his favour and not letting it affect the progress he has made?

Keefe: I think the best we can do is just talk to him — be up front and honest. It is an unfortunate situation for a player who has worked very hard and is as competitive as he is. He did all of the things we asked him to do.

A player like him at his age is never a finished product. There is always benefit to playing in the AHL and helping a Marlies team that we want to see take steps and grow. That growth is only going to happen through the growth of the individuals. He can be a part of that.

At the same time, he will be playing lots and staying fresh and ready for when we need him as opposed to maybe being a scratch here. There are benefits there. But young players don’t want to hear that after they have gone out and done what they asked of them and shown that they can help the team and play.

It is just the reality of the situation. The flat cap creates a lot of these scenarios all around the league. We are trying to manage it as best we can.

How did John Tavares look today as he progresses toward a return?

Keefe: I thought he looked good. Most importantly, he got through the entire practice. Those are encouraging signs for tomorrow’s practice. He is encouraged. If all goes well for the rest of the day, he will come to tomorrow’s practice as though he is preparing to play. We will just continue to assess him.

Is it your understanding that if Tavares can’t play on Wednesday, you will play one player short in that game?

Keefe: That is my understanding. That is something we were prepared to do coming in through the offseason when we made the decision we did to add the players we did under the salary cap. We knew there could be predicaments like that like there have been in previous seasons. We have had several teams in the league playing short, and I am sure there will be again this season.

When we look at the big picture in the long run, we feel like adding a player like Järnkrok was something that we wanted to do. Thus, we run into these types of situations, but it doesn’t make it any easier for sure.

I believe our group is as deep as we have been since I have been here. We have really clear and defined roles throughout the group. We have lots of competition. Guys will be challenging to move up throughout the lineup. I think we are in a really good spot there.

It doesn’t say anything about how we feel about the players that won’t be on the roster. They are still very important players. They will be here in time naturally as we face the realities of an NHL schedule.

For a guy as meticulous as Tavares, are you always confident he is going to be doing everything in his power to get back as soon as possible?

Keefe: Yeah, for sure. He knows his body really well. He is really in tune with what is happening. He takes great care of himself. Our staff and our group as well as his team that he has that he trusts are doing everything they can to make sure he is healthy, feeling good, strong, fit, and all of those kinds of things. That is never in doubt.

Sometimes, the body takes a little longer than you would like. In his case, it seems to have been a little bit quicker. As I said, we will give him another day and monitor it. My sense of it — and the feedback that we have gotten — is that everything is progressing well. He will come tomorrow as if he is preparing to play, and then we’ll make a call from there.

There are a couple of good dressing-room guys in Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds going down to the Marlies. Can you comment on that?

Keefe: Very similar. Again, it is the reality of where we are at with the cap and our roster. Frankly, ever since we made the decision to sign Calle Järnkrok, I think we knew we were going to be tight a short, very tight roster. We believe that the addition of Järnkrok makes us a better, deeper team. As a result, you are going to have to make some decisions like this.

All of the guys we put on waivers  — or in Nick’s case, that we sent down, and Holmberg is just the same — we really believe in. Clifford and Simmer, in particular, are guys who mean a lot to our team and to our room. If you are carrying a bigger roster, those guys are here and a part of our team in terms of how we feel about them and what they can bring and provide to our group.

The system is what it is and our situation is what it is. We had to make some decisions. The 12 forwards that we have remaining, I believe, make us a deeper and stronger forward group than we were a year ago. There are going to be some guys sliding down that depth chart.

How are you going to split up the starts with the goalies on Wednesday and Thursday?

Keefe: Murray will go Wednesday, and Samsonov will go Thursday. We will start that way. We will make our decisions from there. We have a plan for how things will go, but the plan changes every day. The back-to-back one is pretty straightforward. We will go from there.

Did the opportunity for Samsonov to face his former team factor into the decision?

Keefe: No, it didn’t. We wanted Murray to get the first game and get rolling that way with the schedule being what it is. I thought both goalies in practice today were really, really strong right from their goalie session into the practice. I thought those guys made a statement in the practice today with how they competed and how they were solid in the net.

Murray is going to go in the first game. The schedule is what it is — maybe not absolutely ideal, but maybe it is. I haven’t talked to Sammy about that specifically. Curtis [Sanford] has been handling that. It will be our home opener and his former team coming in. There will be a lot of excitement around that.