Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs practice
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs practice

After practice on Tuesday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed Ilya Samsonov’s progress towards a return, Mitch Marner’s 17-game point streak, reinserting Nick Robertson into the lineup for Wednesday’s game vs. San Jose, and the addition of Conor Timmins to the blue line.

Practice Lines – November 29

What is the next step for Ilya Samsonov toward a potential return?

Keefe: He seems like he is feeling good. He has gotten a lot of work in, whether on the road or in here today.

Today was a big step for him. It is not an overly extensive practice today, but he was still able to get some work in a team setting with a little bit of five-on-five in front of him. That is part of his progression.

In terms of where he goes from here, we will just call him day-to-day at this point. For any player’s recovery, you kind of want to see how he is the day after he pushes it. We will get a better sense tomorrow, maybe, of what the next step looks like.

Mitch Marner is really feeling it right now, but this point streak he is on started way back in California. From your perspective, what allows him to be that kind of guy who, even when he is not at the top of his game, is able to find a way onto the scoresheet and influence the game?

Keefe: It just speaks to his ability. Whether it is five-on-five, power play, or penalty kill, he has the ability to make plays and be a difference-maker. He has obviously been very consistent. As you go through a streak like that, there are times when you need a bounce or some luck to go your way. I am sure, somewhere along the way, that has been the case.

Recently, he has been making big-time plays at key moments. He is full marks for this streak that he is on. Our team has been benefitting from it for sure.

When Ed Olczyk and Darryl Sittler set the record for consecutive games with a point, the NHL was very different. Does it speak to Mitch’s ability that he is able to put this run together when teams scout each other as well as they do now — and goaltending is probably a lot better?

Keefe: Whether it is pre-scout or not, everyone knows who Mitch Marner is, his tendencies, and all of those kinds of things. He is a difficult guy to handle, especially because he can get you in so many ways: five-on-five, power play, and penalty kill.

Some of the best plays he made on this most recent trip were on the forecheck stripping pucks and making a play. Those are hard-working, competitive goals. A lot of them start without the puck. All of a sudden, you get it, and you can use the skill to get it to guys in good spots.

He is a dynamic guy. He is a first-team All-Star in the league for a reason. Certainly, he is making that clear right now.

What sort of evolution have you seen from Marner as a vocal presence and a leader on the team?

Keefe: With both him and Auston, two of the younger guys on our team and part of our core, you are looking for them to step up in terms of their ability to take command of the room or take command of a situation. It doesn’t always mean it is going to be loud. It may just be quietly to the guy beside you or whoever may need it — whether they need a boost, positivity, and some reassurance, or whether they need to be challenged.

You are looking for those guys to take that step. In order to do that, they have to have their own game in order and make sure they are setting the proper example on the ice. Both of those guys have been doing that. I think it gives them the confidence and the ability to push and challenge others to match them.

How much does playing the penalty kill make Mitch the player that he is today?

Keefe: No doubt, it helps in terms of the ability to make reads, stay involved in the game, and get extra reps, but I would put Mitch’s skill set, intelligence, and awareness ahead of the penalty kill. He is a penalty killer because of who he is and the skill set that he brings.

There are benefits to him being out there. You get better, you get reps, and you get a feel for players’ tendencies. But the skill set that he has had for a long time — since he was a young boy — has given him the ability to be good in all situations. It comes through competitiveness, awareness, quickness, and just overall intelligence.

Now that you have had a few days to work with Conor Timmins, what stands out about him?

Keefe: It has been a challenge to really get a true sense. Today is really his first real actual practice. Even today, we were out there for less than half an hour.

From what I have seen on video and what I know of him, the puck comes off of his stick really nice, whether it is making a pass or shooting it on the net. There are some real good offensive tendencies there. He is a smart player. It is tough to really show that in the practice sessions. Aside from today, it has really been a morning-skate type of setting for him.

He is a guy we have taken it slow with. He was not a guy who was playing every day in the NHL. He wasn’t playing much at all. At the time we got him, it was three days in a row where he hadn’t skated. We really only had morning skates since coming here.

We have taken it slow. Today, we took another step in terms of getting him an actual partner in the practice and being able to work together there. We will just continue to work with him and make a decision on an appropriate time to get him in.

With Nick Robertson back in, how are you deciding who is the extra guy on any given day? Are you rotating to keep them fresh or are they showing you something in practice?

Keefe: It is more just watching each game as they happen and trying to make the right decision for our team. In some cases, the players — just in terms of how they play and the team plays — tell me that I shouldn’t mess with it and I should let it go. Sometimes, the door opens, and it gives you an opportunity to make a change.

It s a real balance as a coach, especially when the team is going well. Don’t make a change just for the sake of making change. Make a change because you feel it may improve the team’s ability to win the next game.

And then there is giving an opportunity to somebody who hasn’t played in a while. Generally, you don’t want guys to sit for a long time, but you can’t just be locked into the fact that you have a rotation or want to get people in. You might not be making the right decision for your team.

It is a consistent balance. That is why it is a daily discussion for me. I think, coming off of the game last night and the fact that we have played a lot of hockey of late — with the travel and all of those things — you like to be able to use your depth.

Nick is a guy we want to have more involved.