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

After practice on Friday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed the call-up of Joey Anderson, Zach Aston-Reese’s physical play, Denis Malgin’s opportunity on the top six after the Robertson injury, and the productivity of the top-six with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on separate lines.

Practice Lines – December 9

Any update to share on Nick Robertson?

Keefe: He is going to have an MRI this afternoon, which will give us a better idea of where that is at.

Pierre Engvall has a hearing with league discipline. How does that change your preparation for the game against Calgary?

Keefe: It doesn’t change much other than if he is available, he is available. If he is not, he is not, and we will adjust from there. That is really it. We will let that process play out.

What stands out about Joey Anderson’s game that earned him the call-up?

Keefe: He is a guy that has come up a couple of times over my time here. I think he has done well in a very short window of time. Each time he goes down to the Marlies, he is a true leader for them down there in all facets.

The coaching staff really likes and appreciates his game. He has been productive offensively. He is a hard-working guy. I think it’s just that the timing was right.

The reality is that we have sped things up here given the injury situation. He is a guy we were looking at calling up quite soon anyhow regardless of injuries. We feel that with Järnkork’s injury, there was an opportunity to get him more involved. Things have moved up a little bit there.

It is not necessarily just because of anything that happened last night. He is a guy we have been wanting to get involved here for a while now.

After you made the switch of Nylander and Marner on the top two lines, the team hasn’t lost a game in regulation. Both of those lines have really picked up some steam. Do you legitimately feel like you have two number-one lines that pose an issue for the other team’s coach?

Keefe: I feel that way even when the lines are the other way. I don’t think that is any different. When you are coaching our team or coaching against us, I think that is just how you have to look at it.

The individual players have really found their game. I think that really started to come around even before we made the switch in the lines.

That is really how our team is built. Right now, it is working for us on those lines. If you look at last night’s game, you can’t discount the effort that was put forth by guys on our third and fourth lines as well.

That has been what has been really nice throughout this run here: We are getting production from different people at different times. Our top guys are driving us for sure, but there are a lot of good things happening — whether it is on the scoresheet or not — throughout our lineup.

Michael Bunting is on a good run right now. Do you see anything different in his game after the slow start?

Keefe: A lot of our guys had slow starts, obviously. We’ve talked enough about that. It is a long season. Sometimes, it takes time to find a rhythm and find your game, especially for Bunting, who is a guy who hasn’t been in the league for a long time.

He has had to go through some things mentally where it is a bit of as shift, right? Last season, you are new to the league and no one really knows who you are. You are having all sorts of success, and all of a sudden, you come back and you’re playing alongside the Hart Trophy winner. That line is getting a ton of attention. You’re getting a ton of attention. The officials know exactly who you are. There is all sorts of stuff happening there that takes time to adjust to.

Especially offensively, a lot of good things happening in his game. It really starts with him being really competitive and executing when the puck is on his stick.

It looks like Denis Malgin will get an opportunity on the second line after the injury to Robertson. What are you hoping to see from him?

Keefe: When the puck comes to you, you have to make a play with it, whether that is finishing a chance or scoring a goal or advancing the play and keeping things moving for the line. At the same time, you have to bring some defensive utility. You have to be able to win pucks back and be working on defense.

When you are playing up there — and Robertson himself had some struggles with this — the matchups are entirely different. You have to be able to work without the puck to earn it back to have a chance at some offense yourself and also make sure the line isn’t spending too much time in its own end, isn’t being scored on, and all of those kinds of things.

For any player trying to find their way in the top six, that is one thing that doesn’t get looked at nearly enough. Now, Malgin has played a lot of time with Kampf and Aston-Reese. He has played against tough matchups and has done a good job there. It is a little bit different on the off-wing playing with those players. He has done it at different times, and he has done a good job of it. There is an opportunity there now.

He is a guy who has been trying to really solidify himself. It has gone well at times, but the consistency is going to make the difference in whether he can get to the other side of this in terms of being an everyday player.

Zach Aston-Reese mentioned wanting to get the hitting element back in his game. Before the hit on Arthur Kaliyev, he set the tone with the hit on Alex Edler earlier in the game. Is that part of the identity you are seeking from that line now — not just the defensive stuff but more hitting and tone-setting?

Keefe: To me, I don’t look for line identities. You look at the players you have, and you want those players to play to their identity. Aston-Reese is a guy that has been very physical in his time in the league, and we felt that had slipped a little bit for him. We wanted to draw his attention back toward it.

He has done a good job defensively for sure, and that is part of it. Sometimes, when you want to be real physical, you are actually taking yourself out of the play, and you are not in spots.

We have been prioritizing having numbers coming back through the middle of the ice and out-numbering the opposition. Sometimes, that is a lot more difficult to do if you are working out of position to finish a check. I can understand the players’ position on that.

For him, that is part of what we need from him. There is some anticipation there. If you can anticipate where a play will be, you move your feet, and you close space quickly, you want to get on top of it and make a play on it while the puck is still there. That is the biggest thing for us.

I think that is a big part of it, but there is also recognizing what is happening in the game. As it turned out, yesterday, it really changed the momentum, life, and energy of the game with not just the physicality; it also changed the emotion of the game a little bit. LA got a little upset. We got a power play out of it.

All sorts of stuff comes out of it. The crowd comes alive. All of a sudden, you score three in a hurry. It goes to show the impact a player like him can make by playing that way.

You are now tied with Pat Burns and Red Kelly in wins by a Leafs coach. Everybody ahead of you on the list has won a playoff series. How much are you looking forward to addressing that when the chance comes?

Keefe: The names you mentioned, certainly, are good company. They are people I have a tremendous amount of respect for, but it is not something I pay attention to. It is not really of concern to me other than to say I am fortunate to coach a really good team here in a good organization. It has put me in positions to succeed.

I am happy to be able to help facilitate that in the regular season, but we are building towards being a team that can advance in the playoffs. We can’t play in the playoffs today or tomorrow. We have to continue to work our way there and put ourselves in the best position possible to get over that hump.