After practice on Monday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the loss of Ryan O’Reilly to injury for the next (minimum) 10 games, Michael Bunting’s demotion to the fourth line, and John Tavares’ status after skating as an extra at practice.
Practice Lines – March 6
#Leafs forward lines at practice Mar. 6/23
Absent: O’Reilly@BodogCA @RinkWideTOR
— David Alter (@dalter) March 6, 2023
What is the latest on Ryan O’Reilly?
Keefe: He has a broken finger. He will go on LTI. In terms of the full diagnosis and timeline, we will have a better idea of that [later]. He is seeing a specialist as we speak back in Toronto right now. We will know better about it there.
I am not sure what the LTI timeline is, but he won’t be eligible for that period of time. We will get him back up and running as soon as we can.
How big of an impact is his departure from the lineup even though he hasn’t been here for that long?
Keefe: You get excited and you know what he can bring. To lose him is tough and disappointing. We have acquired him to be healthy and ready to go for the playoffs. That will be the case.
To that end, it is not bad in terms of what the bigger picture is. With the nature of the injury, he won’t miss that much time on the ice in terms of skating and all of that.
We did see enough in the short time in terms of what he can bring. We used him in different spots. We can see the impact he can have on our team.
Knowing we will have him healthy and ready to go for playoffs is good. We will see how it goes, but I suspect he will get a good chunk of regular season, too.
With ROR out, are you going to leave it open to whoever wins a spot higher in the lineup? Do you have more of a set plan?
Keefe: It is probably too fresh right now, but in essence, you just go back to the way we were. We have played a lot of hockey this season without O’Reilly, and we were an elite team at the top of the league.
In essence, we will just go back to it. We have the Bunting situation right now, but I don’t see too much changing there in terms of our approach or my mindset. As a team, we press on.
How about John Tavares?
Keefe: He was not feeling himself today. He wasn’t feeling great. He wanted to see exactly where he was at. He got through it. He was feeling a little bit better than he thought.
Out of an abundance of caution, we will leave him out of the lineup tomorrow and get him ready for Saturday.
Is there an extra concern because of the hits he took on Saturday?
Keefe: You are a little more mindful of it, but there is a lot more… There is a bug going around. We have been traveling a lot. There is a lot happening there.
We just want to be sure. He got through the entire practice today and felt good, but more on our side of it than his, let’s just be cautious on this one. As long as he continues to progress well, he will be ready to go for Saturday.
He did take some hits certainly in the last game. It is not an easy trip. It hasn’t been easy travel. Any time you aren’t feeling yourself, you have to be smart about it. That is really all it is about: making sure he is feeling 100% and ready to go for Saturday.
With all of the changes you are making to your lines out of necessity, does it have a feel of training camp where you are just sort of seeing what works and what doesn’t?
Keefe: Not at all. We have made a bigger deal about the changes than we need to. Pontus Holmberg comes back in here, and he has played a lot for us this season. Alex Steeves was up here not too long ago. Liljegren is going to go back in.
Things settle back. I am not thinking that way at all. The changes have been nothing but positive.
Of course, the more time passes, we will get better as a group. To put anything on how we have been playing on the changes or the players that have come in is just letting us off the hook too easily, frankly.
What do you like about Sam Lafferty in between William Nylander and Calle Jarnkrok?
Keefe: We have liked him at center from what we have seen in there. He was playing there a lot in Chicago. We have seen him in that spot. We have already used Acciari at center. We wanted to see what Lafferty can do there.
He has played with tough head-to-head matchups. He has played with good players in Chicago. If we are going to lose two centers as we have here, we have to try some different things.
I think it is a good opportunity for him to do that. He is a versatile guy. He has already played left and right wing for us. This is a position he has played most this season. It gets him back into a position of comfort, too.
Was it important to keep Alex Steeves and Pontus Holmberg together on a line?
Keefe: Not necessarily. It is kind of how it shook out. We weren’t certain of John’s status here. Having some familiarity for those guys — although Pontus has been here more than the AHL this season — works out well that way. I think their skill sets match and all of that.
It was just more how the other lines shook out for me, frankly.
What is your message to Michael Bunting right now?
Keefe: I just want him to worry about his game. That is a big part of why I made the changes to the lines. When you are playing up in that top group, not only are the expectations high in terms of production, but the matchups are difficult.
I want him to be able to focus on his game and get back to skating with the puck, making plays, and being confident with it. That is really it.
You can put him in a different spot where I think he can really be a driver of the line and a leader of the line. Most importantly, it is a chance for him to just focus on his game and get back to being the player we know he can be in terms of playmaking ability, finishing ability, competitiveness, speed, and all of those kinds of things.
It’s just about really getting back to that. There is a mental block there for him right now. We are trying to help him through it.
He is an important guy. I have full confidence he will end up with Matthews before long, but I think this is an important period here to give him every chance to find his game and get it to where we need it to be.
What do you like about the Morgan Rielly – Timothy Liljegren pairing?
Keefe: Again, it is just kind of how the other groups shake out. That is really it. Liljegren has played well for us all season. We have kind of pulled back on him the last little bit to give Schenn and Gustafsson a chance to get in and get comfortable with our group.
We will get him back in and go with six defensemen tomorrow. It is a chance for him to get going. We have been working him through the power play and getting him some extra touches there, even more so going into tomorrow night.
He is an important guy for us for sure. As I have talked to him about, our team is deeper on defense than it was prior to the deadline. With him and the rest of the defense, the standard is higher in terms of staying in and competing with that.
He was in a similar situation last season. Whether it is him or any of our other guys, when they are in, they have to do a good job. Other guys want to play, too.
Is Luke Schenn staying back in Vancouver?
Keefe: Yeah. His wife is due any time now. It just made sense given we were already there to give him some more time. This is our only game coming up here this week. We will give him some extra time out there and revisit it later in the week to see where it is at.
The ability for him to be there with his wife and family was important. It is not an easy journey to get from Toronto to Vancouver if need be. This is going to bide him some time.