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

After practice on Tuesday, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed Auston Matthews’ imminent return to the lineup, the new Engvall-Kampf-Järnkrok line, and the decision to sit Justin Holl for Wednesday’s game against Chicago.

Practice Lines – February 14

How did Auston Matthews look today? What is the outlook going forward with him?

Keefe: I thought he looked good. In terms of the outlook, today’s practice was an important one in terms of getting him the proper reps in a contact jersey and all of that. He hasn’t been in a ton of practice time with the team, but he has skated quite a bit. We will see how he is in the morning and get word from the medical team in terms of his final status.

I think his intent coming into practice was to feel good and be ready to play tomorrow. That determination won’t be made until tomorrow.

What does it mean to get a player of that calibre back in the lineup?

Keefe: It can’t be overstated. It changes a lot about our team in terms of where everybody slots. It is not just what he brings with his contribution but also how it slots everybody else in and makes you that much deeper and harder to defend, especially on home ice with the last change. It creates some real challenges for the opposition.

He is a world-class player. Any time you see him, even at practice, he makes our practices better and certainly in the games that much more.

What led you to put him back with William Nylander?

Keefe: I just think that line has had a lot of success. Mitch and John have had a lot of success. We can and we have mixed it up at times. We know that Auston and Mitch work really well whenever we go to that.

For today’s practice, because I am not really overthinking things beyond today, I just think it was the right mix for today.

What did you like about Nylander’s roughing penalty the other night?

Keefe: It just shows emotion, intensity, and competitiveness not letting a guy take advantage of you. He thought that the guy hit him a bit late, so he responded.

These things happen sometimes. As it turned out, it probably looked a lot worse than it actually was. You might be able to attach an embellishment penalty to that just the same. Regardless, every now and again, you have to let a guy know that you are not going to let him take advantage of you. That is part of being a competitor.

It is just another thing to add to the list of things Willy has added to his game in terms of consistency and being engaged. For that reason, that is why I liked it. You don’t like the penalty. You don’t want to take a penalty and put your team behind, but it is one of those ones you look to find a way to kill. At times, guys need to be able to do that.

In terms of the trickle-down effect of Matthews’ return, what led you to keep Alex Kerfoot in the top six and move Calle Järnkrok down to the third line?

Keefe: I think there has been an uptick in Kerfoot’s game since he’s moved up there. That’s a positive thing. We have talked about that a lot in terms of his history of being able to play in that spot.

At the same time, one line I haven’t gotten a look at that I am intrigued about is Järnkrok pairing with Kampf and Engvall. Kampf and Engvall have been pretty consistent for us. Those guys do a really nice job. We have tried different people with them; it just hasn’t necessarily been Järnkrok. I want to get a look at that and see what he can do there.

I thought Jarny did a good job for us playing with John and helping that line defensively while contributing on offense. We are looking to see what he can bring to the pairing of Kampf and Engvall in terms of the defensive responsibility that comes with that line.

I wasn’t thrilled by some of the moments in the last game with that line, so it is a good time for a bit of a mixup there. Also, we want to get a look at Jarny and how he works with those guys with his skill set.

If you go back to the start of the season, it is sort of how we mapped this out — Engvall, Kerfoot, and Jarnkrok started the season for us. It was a mix of different guys playing up there. Nick Robertson got a good chunk of time with John there. We had to mix some things around. We didn’t get off to a great start, so we got away from our initial look.

For all of the reasons we just listed, I think it is a good time to get that look and see what Jarny’s ability to finish looks like when paired with two guys who are really strong defensively just as Jarny is himself.

With how Engvall has played, there have been more offensive opportunities available for that line. Jarny can give it a boost that way, too. It is something, through 50-some games now, that we haven’t quite gotten a look at yet.

What led to the decision to take Justin Holl out and put Conor Timmins back in?

Keefe: I had been wanting to get Timmins in. It becomes harder to do when we are healthy on the back. He has done a good job for us. He hasn’t played between the break and just with us being healthy. But we have liked what he has done.

He has put lots of good work in off of the ice. You want to keep him involved and in the mix, but it is a competition. In that mix, you have to try to find guys to move in and out of the lineup.

I have talked to Justin at different times. I have felt his game, at times, has been tremendous and has helped us through some real tough times with injuries. He has been a real constant for us on defense in terms of his contributions. At times, it has also slipped.

To me, the other night was one of those nights. When you are looking to get a young guy like Timmins in and you want to keep him going, you are looking for someone to take out. Don’t give me a reason.