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

After practice on Monday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed the imminent return of Rasmus Sandin, reuniting Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie, the dynamic of playing Auston Matthews with William Nylander vs. Mitch Marner, and much more.

Practice Lines – January 2

It looks like Rasmus Sandin is trending toward a return soon. What do you hope to see from him if he does return, and what are some of the changes you anticipate on defense when he is back?

Keefe:  You are just looking for him to get back to playing the way he was. He had been playing really well and playing lots for us. We are getting healthy back there now, but we are still wanting guys to find their game again and show the progress that they have made.

In Rasmus’ case, before he was injured, he was taking on a lot because of the other injuries that we had. Others have come in and done a good job since he has been injured. That is a really good sign for our depth.

For the guys that are in the lineup here, you are wanting to see them just find a groove, get confident, and get comfortable. This gives us a chance to get Brodie back on the right side with Morgan and Sandin back with Lily. Those guys have done a really good job for us. It is a good opportunity for that.

Conor Timmins has played really well for us. He is going to come out, but he has played really well. We are going to use the time wisely that he is not playing and continue to work with him to allow him to continue to grow into his potential. I think he has room to grow there.

Do you expect to put Morgan Rielly back with the top unit on the power play?

Keefe: We will see. When we went to five forwards, I said I don’t see it as a long-term solution, but I have been happy with what we have seen from it. I think we owe it the opportunity to let it grow and really see it rather than overreacting to one thing that might go wrong or might not look good. We need to give it a little bit more time if we are serious about it — and we are serious about it. We have seen enough progress to let it breathe a little bit.

All of that said, if you look just the other night for example, if we had a power play in the third period, Morgan would have been there. With a lead, we would’ve gone with one defenseman. We will see a little bit of that along the way.

I think Mitch has done an incredible job of managing his role in the power play in terms of distributing the puck and being in good spots. He really hasn’t made many mistakes and has really helped the offense.

I think we owe it to let it breathe a little bit here, and we will see where it takes us.

Do you see it more as a tool you have in your pocket?

Keefe: Yeah, I think so. Part of it is the five forwards, but part of it is also being able to see Mitch in some different spots to see what that looks like. Maybe there is a time when you do put a defenseman out there and the defenseman doesn’t necessarily go at the top because Mitch is so confident there, or you can create some switches and rotations that allows Mitch to get up there, be very comfortable in that spot, and have the players be comfortable reading off of him.

There are some things that might come out of this that might help us if we go back to a 1-4 setup. Right now, it has served us well. We owe it the opportunity to continue to grow.

Mitch, Auston, and Willy are top point-getters with 42 points. Some of your big rivals in the Conference also have the same thing. How important is it that your top players be your top players given the way things are and how tight it is going to be?

Keefe: I don’t think that is any secret. I don’t think there is really any team in the league that isn’t at the top of the league with elite players who can contribute. Everyone has a sound team game around that.

The separator: Are those players able to produce? The league is probably closer than ever with the salary cap and all of these different things that allow that to happen. Especially with the flat cap, we have seen the teams that have the cap space over the last couple of years kind of make the league more competitive from the bottom.

The players make a difference. The top teams have guys that are in their prime that are leading the way for the team at all positions. Our guys, certainly, have taken big steps over the last number of years. Our team game around that has really grown. As a result, we have put ourselves in a good spot as a team.

That is something that we are monitoring and staying on top of every single day because you don’t want to let that slip.

Do you think William Nylander’s ability to shoot the puck has changed anything for Auston Matthews on his line?

Keefe: I wouldn’t say that. I think those guys, over the time that they have played together, the chemistry has grown. They have reconnected that way. That has been good to see.

There hasn’t been a lot of reason to change it at this point. Again, it is something I have looked at a lot, but I have liked it. I like the way the players have responded to it.

The fact is he is confident no matter where he plays or who he plays with. He can just be himself. When he has the opportunity to shoot the puck, he is going to shoot the puck. If there is a chance to make a play, he’ll make the play.

It provides a different dynamic. Even Mitch when he is at his best is doing that well, too, but he is very much a pass-first guy. He is going to have the puck on his stick a lot. Willy, for the most part, can get you through the neutral zone really well. From there, there is a little more puck time available for everyone. Whether it is Auston or Bunts, those guys have benefited from that.

Do you see more strength in Nylander’s lower body and power in his skating?

Keefe: Will has been a powerful and strong guy as long as he has been in the league. He obviously has gotten older and maybe there is something that comes with that, but I don’t think anything has changed in terms of his preparation.

He is guy that you can’t question how he works off the ice. He puts in the work. He is a guy who is often in this facility on an off day by himself putting in the work. He is not shy to do that.

He certainly has the ability. I think he has just utilized it more. We have always seen that, but I think it has been more consistent this season. I have been trying to push and challenge him to be a premier player in the league for as long as I have been here. I know he believes he has the ability to be that.

I think he has needed a push along the way — maybe at times more than others — but I think he is enjoying this whole piece of how he is playing and the results that he is getting. He has been utilizing the strengths and tools he has more consistently on both sides of the puck.

Joey Anderson and Mac Hollowell returned to the Marlies to date. With the chance to see some of your depth there, can you talk about some of their contributions?

Keefe: Joey did a really good job when he was here for us. We wanted to give him a good run of games. We were able to do that. He did a good job.

I feel comfortable having him on the bench and putting him out there even with some tough matchups. With Holmberg and Aston-Reese, those guys have really taken a step for us in terms of our ability to trust them on the ice regardless of matchups. Joey fit in pretty well with that.

As I talked to him about it, there is another side to the game at the AHL level that he shows in terms of offense and being able to finish and create chances for himself and his linemates.  He hasn’t been able to do that consistently at the NHL level. That is a big hurdle for a lot of players to take.

That is the next step for him: going back to continue to work through that, and when he finds his way back to the NHL, to really look to solidify himself. I don’t think he has done that quite yet, but he has certainly shown himself to be a valuable depth piece for us.

What did you take from the game against St. Louis last week that you can apply on Tuesday?

Keefe: It is a funny game coming right out of the break. It is never one you want to spend too much time thinking about because it can lead you down a road that is not necessarily correct or appropriate.

That said, at times in the game, we saw how dangerous they are on the rush and in transition. We fed into that a little bit. They have lots of size, strength, and reach — all of those kinds of things that they utilize on the backend that made it hard for our forwards to get off the boards. In a lot of the play on the walls, I thought we struggled out there.

The competitive piece naturally ramps up coming out of the break now. We got better in that area as the trip went on. Certainly, they are a good team that, when you give them extra opportunities, they can make you look bad. We have to be really structured that way.