After an optional skate on Monday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed William Nylander’s work ethic on off-days/optionals, Alex Kerfoot’s recent play, and the challenge ahead against Boston on Wednesday.
Practice Lines – January 30
Just an optional skate (skills day) today for the #Leafs
Taking part: Kerfoot, Holmberg, Simmonds, Anderson, Jarnkrok, Nylander, Brodie, Rielly, Liljegren, Timmins, Benn, Woll.
— David Alter (@dalter) January 30, 2023
William Nylander is a younger player, but does he have that old-school mentality that if the ice is there even for an optional skate, he’ll probably be on it working on things?
Keefe: He certainly does. He is a guy who knows what he needs. No matter what is happening in the schedule, if he feels he needs to touch the puck more, there are certain things he likes to work on himself.
He will get out on the ice — I’ve said it before, and it is uncommon — when this facility is dark and it is a full off-day. He’ll find his way in here and onto the ice to make sure he gets what he needs.
I think that is what you want all players to be able to do. That is what a day like today is about as an optional: to get a sense of where everybody is at and for them to get what they need, but the work in the gym is the main priority for us today as well as the team meeting.
Certainly, Willy is not afraid to work and do what he needs to do to get ready.
Nylander’s numbers are always good, but they seem to have an uptick when Auston Matthews is out. What have you noticed in those situations? Does the dynamic change with him being more of a driver?
Keefe: It is hard to say. You like the recognition that the guys need to step up in that regard. I think there is something to be said about the fact that there is more puck available, whether it is on the power play or at even strength or whatever it is. More of the plays will run through a smaller group of guys, naturally. There is something to be said there.
But it is a small enough sample that I don’t know if you can point to a particular thing. Those are the items that come to mind, but certainly, Will finding ways to consistently produce for us has been a big reason why we have been able to get the results that we have had.
We’ve seen in the past all of Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Nylander spread out over three lines. Have you ever thought of putting Nylander in that spot again?
Keefe: We have thought about it from time to time. It is something that we haven’t necessarily spent much time on this season. Being healthy is important. Finding the right groove in the schedule to look at something like that without disrupting things that are really working is an important thing.
You don’t want to make the change just for the sake of it. Maybe it is something to look at at some point for us.
Alex Kerfoot mentioned he is feeling a little more confident of late. Have you noticed an uptick in his play?
Keefe: Certainly, in the last two games, I think he really showed well early on in the game against Ottawa. That led me — in part because of his play and in part because of shifting things around with Holmberg — to put him up in that spot.
I thought he had a great game yesterday [vs. Washington]. We have talked about it a lot here. He has been in that position a lot in terms of filling in when someone in our top six gets injured and he has to change positions or linemates. He has handled that extremely well over his time here. Last night, it was more of the same.
That is a really good sign for him and us.
There couldn’t have been a bigger challenge to enter the break on with the game against Boston, don’t you think?
Keefe: Yeah. Certainly, there is no overlooking the game for sure. There is a lot of excitement about that. It is a good way to finish it for sure, and yet a great challenge.
You want to go into the break feeling good. I think we are a team that has been good through 50+ games here. You want to feel good going into the break, and you feel like you deserve that. The opponent would be feeling the same.
We are expecting a tough game for sure. We are doing everything that we can to go through our process to get ready for that.
Preparing for a team like Boston, do you prefer if they come into the game having won a few in a row or lost a few in a row as the Bruins have recently?
Keefe: I don’t know. I don’t get too caught up in overthinking those types of things, and even less so with a team such as Boston. They have been the most consistent team in the NHL by far. That is because they believe in what they are doing and they go back out and do it again.
The results haven’t been there for them [lately], but I don’t think that is going to change their mindset. They are still going to be the same type of team in terms of their hunger, their competitiveness, and all of those things.
Like us, because they have had such a tremendous start to the season to this point, they are going to want to finish things off the appropriate way. We are certainly expecting a very competitive game without much between the two teams, not unlike what it was out in Boston.
Catching the Bruins in the standings might be a tall order, but how much emphasis are you putting on at least getting home ice in the playoffs?
Keefe: It is not something we are focused on. We are focused on being as good as we can with our game every day, improving a little bit every day, and being as consistent as we possibly can.
As it relates to Boston specifically, we have talked about the fact that our job is to keep pace and apply pressure to the point where they have to keep going.
When you look at us, we are in a similar situation, be it with Tampa and all the way down to Buffalo — teams like that — who are in pursuit of us in the way that we may be in pursuit of Boston. You have all of these different pressures happening in the standings that might be going on on the periphery.
Internally, for us, we are focused on our game, our team, our players, and having things in order as best as we can. The results will come for us. Everything else will sort itself out.