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

After practice on Tuesday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed final preparations for the season opener in Montreal on Wednesday, John Tavares’ return from injury, the Tavares-Nylander line, and his confidence in his goaltending tandem heading into the 2022-23 season.

Practice Lines – October 11

What are your expectations for John Tavares? He seems optimistic about playing tomorrow. He did miss a big chunk of camp. What are your expectations for what he might look like to start this season?

Keefe: For any player that misses time — I would put Pierre Engvall in this category, and even to some degree, Rasmus Sandin — they are a little behind. That is just natural, but they are all good players in their own way. You want them to go out, have a sense of what the expectations are structurally, try to keep their game simple, and allow things to fall into place — not try to do too much or make too big of a statement in your first game. You just go out, do your job, and do your part for the team. That is really it.

We have a really deep team and a really good team. We don’t need any one guy coming into the lineup feeling like they have to take on too much. That is the nice thing about our group: We can allow guys to come in, ease their way back in, and take it from there.

How big of an impact will his presence in the lineup make for game one after it seemed like it wouldn’t be the case a few weeks ago?

Keefe: I think it gives the team a jolt and a boost for sure. His talent and what he brings to our team make us that much more dynamic, harder to check, and harder to defend. And then he is our captain. Having the presence of your captain right from the start of the season is always good — certainly better than not.

The power play, and all of those kinds of things, are in place right from the start of the season in terms of how you envisioned it coming in. To that end, we are thrilled to have him back.

Matt Murray mentioned he is thrilled to start the first game. You mentioned that you wanted to give him the first game. Why was it significant for you to have him in the first game?

Keefe: He has earned it. At the same time, so has Ilya Samsonov, but in Murray’s case, he is the guy with more experience. I think it is just natural for me to do it that way.

We talked about it yesterday. It just so happens falls where Washington is the opponent in the second half of the back-to-back. That is maybe reason or cause to pause and think about it for a second — how it might affect Sammy and his mindset.

We just think it is important to give Murray the first game. We are right to it from there. Murray gets the first game. Sammy gets the home opener. Both guys have performed well and certainly deserve the opportunity to have those particular moments.

Is this in some ways the strongest goaltending tandem you have had?

Keefe: When I referred previously to the optimism I came into the season with, we were well aware of the fact that we really needed to help both guys get on track, but when I looked at the talent and the experience, I would definitely put it that way.

We have obviously had guys with ability here in the past, but I look at Murray’s time in the league, his accomplishments, the experience he has in winning the Stanley Cups and being a part of great teams. Samsonov was a high first-round pick and performed as a starting goalie in the playoffs last year. We have two guys who really give us confidence there.

We had to really work with them to get them feeling good through the offseason and into training camp. They have delivered everything we have asked of them. Now, things are going to step up to another level. We have to do our part as coaches and as a team in front of them to protect them and give them every opportunity to succeed.

That has really been our mission and what we have talked about no matter who has been in goal here over the last couple of seasons. These guys — I don’t want to compare or anything to the past — give me and our team confidence coming into the season.

This is the third season in a row that Nylander and Tavares are lining up together. With every year, does the comfort level grow when you look at those two, and what makes them click when they are going?

Keefe: I think it is just that they’re two very good players. That is really what it comes down to. I don’t know if there is a whole lot to point to in terms of chemistry or anything like that, but I just think they are two very good players.

You have John, who is very good down low in the offensive zone. You have Will, who is very good and dangerous on the rush and can bring the puck up the ice. I think there are some complementary pieces there, but they are just two very good players.

They have had a series of different people play with them over time. They have had to adapt and adjust to that. Really, to me, it comes down to the individual players and how they are performing and how they are thriving. Both guys have a pretty good sense of where their game is at and what they need to do. That gives me confidence as a coach that they will be ready.

What do you like about Mark Giordano at the top of the second power-play unit as opposed to someone like Rasmus Sandin, who we have seen in that spot at different times?

Keefe: I think you will continue to see different people at different times there. In Gio’s case, he has a lot of experience there. We really like what he brought to that unit when he came in last season. He is a little more willing to shoot the puck from the top and does a good job there with that.

Particularly when the second unit gets out there, they don’t have a lot of time. Having a little more of a shot mentality there is important, whether it is him taking turns with Rasmus and flipping that around a little bit, or them playing together. We will have two D on the ice at different times.

We want to use both. There is a different skill set and a different experience. Gio, being here from day one of camp, has worked with that group and all of those kinds of things. It is just a little more natural for that to just flow into the season. We will continue to work Rasmus into it.

What is the timeline for Timothy Liljegren’s return?

Keefe: I am not certain about that. I know he skated. He is pretty limited in what he is doing at this point, both in the gym and on the ice, given the nature of his injury. That is something that is going to take time.

In terms of the timeline itself, he is not in the cards to be joining practice any time soon. That is all I have on that.