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

After practice on Sunday, Sheldon Keefe discussed the league’s slashing fine issued to John Tavares, the decision to mix up the defense pairings with Jake McCabe joining Justin Holl and Morgan Rielly re-uniting with TJ Brodie, and the nuances of running 11/7.

Practice Lines – March 12

What have you liked about the three games in which you have run 11/7?

Keefe: I liked that it allows us to keep our defensemen involved — Gustafsson, in particular. You make the decisions when you bring these guys in that you need to keep them involved.

You can start to question if you should be 12/6, stay with that, and go with your six guys, but we added the depth guys because you don’t know what you are going to encounter. We can go with just the six guys, and then if we get an injury at a key time, all of a sudden, you have to play someone who hasn’t played. You’re saying, “How come this guy didn’t play? Now he’s not ready.”

Those are the kinds of things you are managing. We just made the decision now with O’Reilly being out. In terms of lineup decisions and replacements, to me, it just makes way more sense to utilize our defensemen.

With O’Reilly being out, did it lean you toward doing it more often than expected?

Keefe: Yeah. In terms of staying with it, coming back off of the trip, I thought maybe we wouldn’t do that, but really processing things… As I said, with that injury, we think it is important to keep our depth on defense involved, engaged, and work through some different things there.

At the same time, as a byproduct of that, you go with 11 forwards and it allows me to try some things there, too, to keep the guys moving and involved. With our newer players — Lafferty and Acciari, in particular — those guys are naturally moved into different spots and are playing more than they otherwise might. There are some positives that come out of that, too, at the same time.

In terms of going with it a little more regularly here, it is really out of the fact that I just believe Gustafsson going in as an O’Reilly replacement makes a lot of sense for us for many reasons.

Mitch Marner’s ability to intercept passes — is it more instinct or skill? Are there certain tells he is looking for when he seizes on those opportunities?

Keefe: It is a lot of instinct, but I think there are certainly tells. Some players are able to pick up on those and process them quicker and better than others. Mitch is at the top end of that.

As I said last night, if you are on the other side, you certainly say it was a bad turnover. I don’t believe those things happen by accident. In terms of Mitch reading off of different plays, in some cases, when he is approaching, he doesn’t come in straight lines. He comes at angles. He may fake it himself, and in some cases, it might confuse a player who will have talked himself out of option A and moved to option B.

You are not sure which of those things come into play the most in situations such as last night, but in general, that is what Mitch makes great off of the puck. There is so much happening in such a little amount of time that he is able to process and turn into action way more efficiently than the opponent.

What potential do you see in Jake McCabe with Justin Holl?

Keefe: It is not something we have talked a whole lot about, to be honest. Last night, Dean [Chynoweth], with the way things worked out with some of the matchups, ended up changing the pairs throughout the game. He liked the way it looked.

With the seven defensemen moving things around, he just likes that mix a little bit better. It is not necessarily anything other than me trusting Dean, his instinct, and what he wants to see from the defense.

We have a good sample of McCabe and Brodie now. We will settle to that again at some point I am sure, but Dean liked the way it felt when he made those changes. He felt they were necessary in the game and thought the guys responded well. We wanted to stay with that.

Matt Murray said he wasn’t particularly pleased with his start last night. How pleased were you, though, that he makes the big save at 3-1 and locks it up later in the game?

Keefe: The game is probably over at 3-1 [if the chance goes in]. That gave our group a ton of confidence on the bench.

Three goals on maybe nine shots at the time… There were some clean looks at the net from good players, but I know he would want to keep at least one or two of those out.

For him to hold his ground and make the next save… For us as a team, we shouldn’t be giving up that chance. It is already 3-1. You can’t give up anymore if you want to come back. You give up a big chance, and he is there to make a big save.

I thought he was solid there for a good chunk of time that allowed us to really pull away in the game and maintain our lead. They started to get their power plays, and we were still in a comfortable lead. It was a really positive sign that the more he played in that game, he started to look like he found some confidence and found a rhythm there.

It has been tough. He didn’t play for a long time. He got one start, and it was a week between starts. I thought it was a really good sign that he stayed with it and gave us a chance to come back in the game.

Did that influence you for tomorrow’s decision in goal?

Keefe: Yeah, it does. Matt will go tomorrow.

There are a couple of things at play. There is a lot of hockey this week. Both goalies are going to play. But I do think it is important for Matt to get a little bit more consistency in the net rather than large gaps between starts.

Again, maybe it is influenced by the fact that I thought he got better throughout the game last night. There is that.

We are going to use both guys. Sammy is not quite at 100% right now, either. It just makes a little more sense for me to give him a little more time and give Murray some more consistency in the net.

John Tavares was fined 5k for the slash on Vincent Desharnais last night. Is it another example similar to William Nylander’s penalty a few games back where it is not necessarily part of his game but you don’t mind seeing it?

Keefe: You want to see guys be disciplined — especially in a game like that — and maintain their composure, and yet at times, emotions are high. On the top players, in particular, a lot of players take a lot of liberties, especially in tight games. It seems not much of it gets called. Sometimes players have to take it into their own hands in cases like that and stand up for themselves.

For that reason, I have no problem with it. Just like William, I have no concerns about John’s ability to keep his composure at key times and not cross the line. To that end, we just press on with it.

In the last game against the Sabres in Buffalo, you mentioned it was the best you had seen the team play collectively all year. How close have they come to that standard since then?

Keefe: I certainly felt that. Looking back on the game after the fact, the way I felt about it is that there was a combination. It was as good as we have looked and felt, and from the other side of it, Buffalo wasn’t great. They didn’t have their game. They are a far better team than that. You get the combination of the two, which is why we were able to jump ahead the way that we were.

I think we have looked the same as we were in Buffalo a lot. It just hasn’t necessarily always been the combination of the opponent breaking down and giving us those types of opportunities.

Buffalo is a far better than they were. We are expecting a much more difficult game. Watching the game back from yesterday with them against the Rangers, I know they didn’t get the win in the end, but to me, they were dominant in that game offensively and gave up nothing defensively. They certainly deserved to win the game.

They are a team pushing hard to remain in the playoff hunt and in the mix. Certainly, much like we remembered the game when we were in Edmonton last night, I am sure our game in Buffalo is fresh on their minds. We are going to have to be at our best.