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

After practice on Tuesday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed the injury to Morgan Rielly, how difficult he is going to be to replace, and the decision to insert Nick Robertson and Mac Hollowell into the lineup for the game against New Jersey on Wdnesday.

Where are you going to miss Morgan Rielly the most?

Keefe: On the ice.

How hard is it to fill the void?

Keefe: Are you a better team when you have Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, or Jake Muzzin in the lineup? Of course you are a better team. It is not the first time a team has dealt with injuries to key players. It is not the first time our team has dealt with injuries to key players. Each time, we have responded well, won games, and played even better defensively than we were when we had all of these guys in the lineup. We will just continue to play a good, sound team game and find ways to win.

What is the diagnosis and timeline?

Keefe: There is no firm timeline. He is obviously on LTI. You have a timeline there, and beyond that, we will just have to see how he is doing.

What is the size of the opportunity in front of Rasmus Sandin now?

Keefe: Huge opportunity for him — not just him but everybody. For Rasmus, in particular, there is an increased opportunity on the power play and more minutes. It is everything you want as a young player. He’ll look to take advantage of it and all of those things.

As it relates to Rasmus specifically, in the last few games, I have seen a real uptick in his play. I think he is starting to show more confidence with the puck. He stepped in with the fight and stuff last night. I think those are different things that add to his swagger a little bit.

Aside from the fight, he has shown a lot more confidence in his overall play lately. There is good timing in that sense. I think he is in a better place than he was even a week ago. He is going to get lots of opportunities here.

Can you remember a team ever losing their number one, two, and three defensemen at the same time? What’s it like having to replace half of your defense?

Keefe: I really don’t overthink it. It is next guy up. That is really it. It is next guy up. It is very cliche, but it’s the reality as a coach.

It doesn’t do you any good to sit there and feel sorry for yourself or anything like that. You have to go play the games. As I said, each time we have lost a guy and for a moment you think, “that sucks,” it seems like our team plays better.

I am expecting the same. That is really it. Not just the defense but the forwards have to support the defense, and collectively, we have to support our goaltenders. As our team game continues to improve, we have a chance to beat anybody.

What stands out to you about Mac Hollowell and why he deserves the opportunity to be the next guy up?

Keefe: We just think it is time. He has put in his time in the minors. We have Mete here as well. We have played him, and he will come on the road with us and be available to us.

When you get into a situation like ours with the injuries that we have — and you can add Carl Dahlstrom as well as another option we are playing without — you get an opportunity to give a guy like him a chance to go.

He has played well for us in the preseason. He has been up here a number of times previous to practice with us. He is very comfortable around our group. All things considered, it is a really good chance for us to get him in and allow us to use his speed and ability to move the puck in an NHL environment.

Is there a limit to how much you can push Mark Giordano at this stage in his career?

Keefe: We might find out. Every time I have a conversation with Gio, in terms of whether he wants days off or to miss practices, he wants nothing to do with it. He wants to keep the engine firing. He tells us that the more he plays, the better he feels.

He is a guy who has played in the league for a long time. He has a certain threshold that he likes to get to stay in rhythm and feel good. As he has gotten older, his minutes have gone down a little bit. At times, he has said it affects him. He is used to playing more.

It is a balance of getting to that point where you are feeling engaged and have rhythm in your game and then making sure you have gas in the tank. That is on us to manage with him. He is a guy who at this point has shown no signs of slowing down. He is a guy that wants to continue to push.

In practice, he was one of the first guys on the ice today putting in extra work before practice begins and he doesn’t have to. He takes his morning skates.

As his minutes are going to climb now more than we would like or would have planned, we will continue to look at it, but he is not a guy to ever say no.

What is the key for Nick Robertson now that he is back in the lineup?

Keefe: Just look to make a positive impact on the game both offensively and defensively. Make a positive impact. That is really it.

Do you lay out what he needs to do to make an impact, or at this level and with his experience now, is he expected to figure it out?

Keefe: I have talked with him about that. We are looking for him to find ways to make an impact with his skill set and for him to defend and track. At times, whether it was losing some battles or some defensive positioning, the game starts to flip against you and your line and thus you as a team. Those are the kinds of things where, as a young player, you have to recognize the value in that.

The way you impact the game may not necessarily be points. Sometimes, the points are not going to be there and the offense is not going to be there, but you have to ensure you leave the game in a good spot when you come back to the bench. As young players, that is part of the learning process.

He hasn’t played, so we are expecting him to have lots of jump. I know he will be excited to get in and play. He has the ability to impact the game for us positively on offense. On the defensive piece, I know he is really going to work and compete. We are going to play against a very good team on the road with tough matchups. We expect him to be better in that regard defensively than he was when he was in previously.

Do you take any extra motivation entering a game against an opponent that has won 13 in a row with the opportunity to end their run?

Keefe: I think it is more that we played them recently. We had a chance to end their run at that point in time and failed to do so despite the fact that we felt we played a good hockey game for the first 40 minutes. Our third period and overtime were not good.

We were right there with them. We know we can play with any team in the league. The fact that you have played them recently gives you that extra piece when you are out on the road. You want to go get your points back.

Was the game against the Islanders as clean of a defensive game as you have had all season?

Keefe: It was close. There have been a few others where I think we were right there. Philly comes to mind. There are one or two others there that were really strong for us. We felt we did a really good job defensively to give us a chance to win.

Obviously, we need to get to that third goal, and then when you get there, the mistake you make on the second goal doesn’t affect you to the same degree. As I am saying, our team defense and the way we have played as a group, no matter who he is in the lineup, has given us a chance to win every single night. I fully expect it to continue.

You just passed the three-year mark with the team. What has it been like as a Toronto-area guy coaching this team?

Keefe: I was reminded yesterday that it had been three years. It is not something you track.

In three years, a lot has happened. It has been a different world with Covid and everything being what it’s been. Obviously, it is a tremendous privilege and opportunity to coach the group and be a part of this franchise.

As a guy with a young family, I am out in the community and in the arenas more than probably most people in my position. That creates some unique circumstances, but obviously, I have enjoyed every minute of it — particularly now as restrictions have eased and my family has been able to be more a part of it like they were when I was first hired.

To be connected in that way is a big deal — not just for me but also with some of the players that have been here, particularly the new guys that haven’t been able to have their families around since being a part of our team.