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

After practice on Friday, Sheldon Keefe discussed his decision to run with 11 forwards and seven defensemen against Edmonton on Saturday night.

Practice Lines – March 10

What was the thinking behind Wayne Simmonds rejoining the group in practice?

Keefe: We’ll be 11 forwards and seven defensemen tomorrow, so there is that, but Wayne has been away from the team for a while. We wanted to get him his regular reps in practice.

Is there an update on Luke Schenn’s status?

Keefe: No update other than to say he is still holding in Vancouver with his wife. Nothing has changed here. They are still on baby watch.

It is a difficult situation in terms of him joining the team and such because it is so far away. It is so important that he is there for his family. It is a tricky one to navigate here, but what is most important is that he is there for his wife and his family.

We are in full support of that. He is remaining on the ice and staying ready and such. Once there is some movement there, he will rejoin the team.

What was the thinking behind partnering Erik Gustafsson with Morgan Rielly?

Keefe: Just with us going with seven defensemen tomorrow, Gustafsson is going to play. He hasn’t had a practice, really, where he is paired with someone he is going to play with potentially in the game.

Our D will be moving around as they have been in previous games when we have played seven. It is just a matter of getting him more in the rotation versus pairing with Timmins, who isn’t going to play tomorrow.

Is it a challenge to find who works best with who with so many options available?

Keefe: I think it is less about finding who works best with who. It is more about keeping guys involved specifically with the defense. We are healthy back there.  With Schenn in the early part of that road trip, we have eight. With seven here now plus Timmins — who comes in as our eighth now — there are a lot of guys there to manage.

Gustafsson was thriving in Washington, playing a ton and running their power play with lots of points. He was feeling really good about his season. It has been tougher for him coming in here. Now he is playing behind lots of guys. We are trying to find ways to keep him involved and keep working him in.

I do think he offers our group some things not unlike what Sandin brought us in terms of his ability to move the puck, help us on the breakout, help us in the offensive zone, and help us on the power play. It is important to keep him involved.

Right now, it is an 11/7 mix, but we will see how that progresses the rest of the way. I do think both he and Schenn are important guys to get involved in our mix. If we remain healthy, we will have to look at different ways to keep them involved. Right now, it is 11/7.

What are the challenges and benefits of 11/7?

Keefe: It is mixed. It demands more of the coaching staff and the players in terms of making a lot more decisions — who is going to play with who, what the right matchups are, and you are also monitoring energy levels a lot more than you would in a normal game when you are rolling four lines.

Because of the pace and rhythm of the line changes, you have a sense of who is ready and who is not. With 11/7, you are a little more in flux there. You are trying to keep some lines intact. Some players aren’t as available because you do want to have some continuity.  That is just on me to manage that and for the players to show some patience with it.

I do think there are some opportunities there as well. You are looking at Tavares and Bunting, and as we have lined things up, I do like the Lafferty group. I would like to continue with those guys playing together and try to build on what they did the other night. It gives me some real opportunities to play around with Tavares, Bunting, and who I can play with them to see how that goes for us.

I do think we have had some really good shifts from Kampf, Acciari, and Aston-Reese. There is a lot to like there in terms of options. With last change on home ice, it provides me with an increased opportunity.

Auston Matthews mentioned that the knee is still sore from the shot block. He has been able to play, but what is your sense of how it is impacting him?

Keefe: He can answer it better than I, of course, but just from watching, I think it was very clear it was impacting him and affecting his skating in Vancouver, in particular. In New Jersey, he looked to be skating as well as he has in a long time.

That is not necessarily because of the leg or the shot block or anything like that, but it was more the way the game went. His line came out of their own zone and through the neutral zone with a lot of speed. I think that is part of what Kerfoot brings to that group: his ability to make a play on the breakout, get us through the neutral zone, and get Auston skating.

I thought [Matthews] was flying through the neutral zone. I had sort of forgotten about the fact that he was nursing something like that, but I do know from some experience that those things do take some time to really go away. It didn’t seem to be affecting his ability to really push the pace the other night.

The last time you played Edmonton, the group was just coming together after all of the changes. Does the extra time to gel have you feeling more prepared this time around?

Keefe: They have been with us a good chunk of time here now, so you kind of forget about the fact that today was their first time in the facility. Things are definitely in flex, but I don’t think that had anything to do with our performance when we were out there.

As I said, the more time that passes, I think our group will come together even more. The game in New Jersey was a good indication of that. They stepped and did a great job for us — Lafferty, in particular, with two centers out of the lineup.

The more time that we can spend together and the more practice time that we get is just going to help our group.