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

After practice on Monday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed Jordie Benn’s status, the play of his big four up front, the team’s strong form in recent weeks, and rookie center Pontus Holmberg’s ability to stick in the lineup so far.

Practice Lines – December 12

It looks like Jordie Benn is on the mend. What is his status?

Keefe: He seems to be progressing well. He had a good practice. It is important for him as it is for any player coming back.

I don’t have a report on exactly where he is at. We are going to take our time with him with the type of injury that he had. We are pretty content with our defense as it is right now, so we are going to make sure that he is absolutely ready to go before he gets in.

With Conor Timmins and TJ Brodie in for the last couple of games, what have your impressions been of those two?

Keefe: Yeah, I think they have been good. Brodie — you know what to expect from him, and he has really helped Timmins there.

I think Timmins himself has settled in nicely. For a guy who hasn’t played much in the NHL this season or played much hockey this season, he is getting better each day.

We had a practice day today, and he is putting in lots of good work with our development team. We like what we see from him for sure.

Are games like Saturday’s win positive in terms of getting the result but also giving you a chance to reinforce the good habits you want to see from the team?

Keefe: As a coach, you would love to not have those games and just be sharp. The reality is that it is going to creep back in at times. As we talked about, the hope is that when you have a game like that, you snap out of it quickly and get right back to what has allowed us to succeed.

The good news is that still found a way to get two points. Early in the season, that was obviously not the case.

I don’t want to make a bigger deal than we need to. We had some bad moments where we didn’t manage the puck well, but for the most part, I thought we defended quite well. At even strength, we gave up close to nothing, to be honest. From a scoring chance perspective at five-on-five, we were pretty dominant in that sense.

There are still areas of our game there where we thought we gave up control of play and made life harder on ourselves than it needed to be. We hadn’t been doing that here for quite some time. That will be the message today, and certainly, it will be going into tomorrow.

When you last played against Anaheim, it was a low point for the team, but everything has turned around since then. What changed psychologically at that point? What clicked?

Keefe: The guys sensed the urgency of the moment both at that time and also with the number of injuries we have had in goal and on defense. That in and of itself has really gotten the team’s attention.

We have talked about that. We are starting to get healthy here now. We don’t want to lose what we gained in terms of our mindset because that, to me, is a big part of it: just having the right mindset and recognizing what is giving us the opportunity to succeed.

There has been strong defensive play. We haven’t talked as much about how we manage the puck, but we have done a really nice job of that as a team, although not nearly as good of a job against Calgary.

As a result, the game [vs. the Flames] is a little bit more chaotic. Because of how we have played, everybody else looks better and plays better. All of a sudden, everybody looked not as good, and that includes our top people. All the way through, there are opportunities for us to grow from that.

Certainly, we are in a different spot here now than we were when we left California.

There was a lot of pre-faceoff chatter and strategizing around faceoffs, which John Tavares mentioned in terms of knowing where everyone is and putting extra emphasis on cleaning up the little things.

Keefe: Manny Malhotra takes the lead on our faceoffs in terms of both what happens on the dot with our centermen and the other pieces that are happening — offensively and defensively, win or lose, what the responsibilities are and what to expect from the opposition. He does a tremendous job in preparing the team for that.

We have seen a real improvement over last season and this season in that regard with how we have done there. The addition of Spencer Carbery on the power-play side, and having another guy who can focus on that area, really helped us. Manny was a tremendous faceoff guy himself and takes a lot of pride in it. He has really helped the team.

Are you surprised by the fact that you’ve switched the combinations within the big four for as long as you have this season given the plan to start the year?

Keefe: I think that is fair to say. It probably has been a little bit longer. I think it is a credit to the players for how they have handled it and how we have played as a team.

At different times within games, especially since we lost Järnkork in our top six, I have tried to mix it up a little bit. You see Marner with Auston and Willy with John. It happens within games where we are mixing it up a little bit.

It is a very healthy thing. No matter who I have played together and how it has worked out, the group has just kept on producing and kept on giving us a chance to win games. I am really happy with how that has played out.

Why has Pontus Holmberg been able to stick in the NHL as long as he has so far?

Keefe: The big thing for me, first of all, is that we don’t have tremendous depth at center. We tried Kerfoot and Järnkork spending some time there and Engvall a little bit. We thought that we liked the look of them better on the wings. That opened up an opportunity for him.

Since being here, he is just a very efficient and smart player. He does a lot of good things for us. I think he has a lot of great potential. He checks a lot of boxes in terms of what you are looking for from a young player.

He is not going to light the world on offensively, but he is a smart player defensively, he can hold onto the puck and protect it, and he is strong on the puck both offensively and defensively.

He can make a play at the same time, whether it is scoring a couple of goals, some assists, or moving the puck up the ice. He does a lot of good things that keep moving the chains for us offensively.

In Sault Ste. Marie, the Leafs have grown a very big fan base, probably in part due to the Dubas family. To have such a big contingent of former Soo players on the team, can you speak to the ties between the two organizations?

Keefe: Kyle’s influence and involvement here is a big part of that. Leafs Nation is pretty widespread across the country if not the world. We see that no matter where we go or what city we are in.

Any time you have players with those kinds of connections, I think — especially in junior hockey here in Ontario  — you tend to follow those players. We see it with some of the players, not just from the Soo, but with Mitch in London, and you see some of the London Knights jerseys.

All the way through our group, you see that. I think it is natural. It kind of comes with it.

The way that it works out, we have had some real difference-makers who have come in here who happen to play in the Soo.