At the opening of 2023 training camp, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed starting William Nylander at center ice and how it could impact the lineup, the crowded competition on the left wing, his goaltending situation, and much more.
Keefe on giving William Nylander a serious look at center ice
In the interest of creating versatility in your lineup, is there a scenario where you would use William Nylander at center in a more consistent way?
Keefe: Willy is going to start at center in camp tomorrow. With that being the case, we have considered it. I have talked to Willy about it. Tre and I have talked a lot through the offseason about it.
Willy has moved to center at different times since I have been here. Moving from wing to center is a lot more difficult on the fly than moving from center to wing. Giving him some time and opportunity to grow into that position through camp — and have experience and confidence to do it — gives us a chance to see what it looks like, how it affects Willy’s game, and also how it affects our team and the flow of our team.
I think it is important to do so. Willy has been fully on board. He is totally comfortable playing center. He gets drafted as a center. I coached him playing center with the Marlies. It is not a huge leap from my position.
It is just something we haven’t given a whole lot of runway to. We will commit to it for a bit here. I am not committing to any sort of specific period of time, but it is not going to be a one-off, one-day, or one-preseason-game thing. We want to give it some time to come together just to see what it looks like.
Why was now the time to move Nylander to the middle, and how does it affect John Tavares specifically?
Keefe: I would just say that Tre and I talked a lot this summer. Tre is coming in with a fresh set of eyes and a fresh set of ideas. It is something that he presented. We talked about some of the history of William playing in the middle and how it has been sort of one-off here and there with not a whole lot of runway given to it or a whole lot of time to let it breathe and for him to get comfortable there. That is really what has led us to starting camp this way and giving him that opportunity.
I do believe he will still move around and play wing. He has talked to me about how playing as a center and moving to the wing — whether it is for a game or a shift here or there — is very easy and comfortable for him. Going the opposite way is much more difficult. To have this time makes it make sense that way.
It increases the depth of our team. I am well aware of who the good players are and who needs to be on the ice, whether it is Auston, John, or David Kampf. We have a lot of options there. We have a lot of guys who will give us good minutes. It will be on me to manage it.
That will be part of what we see here: How does it affect the flow and the rhythm of the team when you have them on three lines like that?
Is there a possibility that John Tavares goes to the wing?
Keefe: John did show the ability to play wing for us last season and the confidence to do so. That is always an option that we can utilize at any time we think. John is comfortable with that.
As I have talked about here, our plan is to start with Auston, Willy, and John all up the middle to see what it looks like. It is something we haven’t given a whole lot of time to. Usually, when Willy has played center in the past, it has been one of Auston or John has been out.
We want to get a look at that. Whether it is Willy moving to the wing or John moving to the wing, we have tremendous options and flexibility there. With the additions that we have made this offseason, it gives us some opportunity to try some things. I think it is necessary.
As I have talked about, there is a lot of change in the forward group. We will look at some things there.
Nylander has now set new career highs in goals and points. How much better do you think William can still be?
Keefe: Much like I think about William playing center when people ask me if I think he can do it, I say that I think Willy can do whatever he puts his mind to. He is that good. He is that powerful. He is that strong.
At times, I push William hard because I really believe in his ability. I believe he can accomplish more. I know he wants to accomplish great things. I think that is part of where we are on the same page even though maybe sometimes we aren’t on the same page because I am pushing and challenging him and all of that. There is common ground there. He wants to be great. I am seeking to help him do that.
He had a tremendous season for us last season. I fully believe he will continue to grow on that. He set career highs, and yet he did have a couple of periods of time in the season where he had some real lulls. I know he has tried to eliminate those lulls or reduce those lulls. Some of them are natural or inevitable over the course of an 82-game season, but he is a tremendous player who is really confident in himself and his ability. I will give him every opportunity to continue to build his game.
Keefe on whether Auston Matthews will kill penalties this season: “He will get some time through the preseason to get comfortable with that”
There was some talk this summer about Auston Matthews killing penalties. What are your thoughts on that as camp begins?
Keefe: If there are minutes available on the PK that we have to fill this year, we have dabbled a little bit with Auston on the PK a couple of seasons ago. He is willing and able to do whatever is asked of him to help the team. He will get some time there through the preseason as well to get comfortable with that.
I expect a number of other players to be competing hard for those minutes on the PK. When it comes to a player of Auston’s calibre killing penalties, it is not necessarily whether he can do it. It is about how it affects the team and the rest of it. If you are going to play on the PK, he is likely to have to miss at least a shift of five-on-five play. When you have one of the best five-on-five players in the league playing a little bit less, that is not always a good thing.
It is up to me to manage it. What I would like to see is that our group develops such that we do use Auston on the PK, but depending on what is happening in the game, we have a number of others who are ready to take those minutes as well.
Keefe on the whirlwind summer of management and coaching staff changes
Can you take us back to that dramatic month of May when Kyle Dubas left, Brad Treliving came in, and your situation was unknown? What were you feeling in those moments when Kyle left before Treliving got here? Were you worried about your own job at that point?
Keefe: One of the things I am most excited about today is a chance to be here, focus on what we are doing, and not have to look back or think much about what has happened. It is a new team and a new group. It is a new GM. It has been exciting that way.
In terms of the contract itself, I was obviously happy that got settled. Any time an organization shows belief in you, it is an empowering thing. In my conversations with Tre, it was something that was going to be dealt with in time. We have both checked a number of things off of our list to get to it.
Through the time we had spent together, it was clear it would be a match on both sides. It was a commitment on my side as well and a reflection of how I feel about Tre and the direction of the team.
That side of it is good. It doesn’t have any impact on me in terms of my preparation, my planning, or whatever it might be. The focus is the job. It is a significant opportunity and challenge for me once again here. I am excited about it.
What has stood out about Brad Treliving’s management style in the months getting to know him?
Keefe: The one thing that has stood out for me right away is that he is very natural and easy to talk to. It feels natural. It didn’t take much in terms of getting comfortable speaking with him and all of that. I think that is one of Kyle’s great traits as well. In that sense, it was really good for me.
He comes with different experiences. He comes from different teams. He comes from a different conference. There are a lot of different perspectives that he brings and fresh ideas.
Like anyone who is as successful as he has been at the top of pro sports, they put in lots of hours. Tre is from out west, but he has been here all summer long grinding away often in a dark and quiet facility on weekends with nothing going on. You get a call from him or you happen to pop in for a different reason thinking the place is empty, and he is upstairs grinding away.
I have been really impressed with how he has taken on so much. Things come really quickly. It is well documented when he arrived how much he had on his plate. I think he has handled it extremely well.
He is a very easy guy to talk to and share ideas with.
When you are considering lineup changes, what is the process like through the summer? Are you picking the brain of Treliving and the like?
Keefe: You go through a number of things. This was a unique offseason for me in lots of ways. You guys are well aware of that.
There were a number of discussions with Tre going through the process of whether we were going to be a match to work together. That was the first thing. As you are starting to build the team, there are a number of conversations that you have. You are starting to build our plans for training camp from there.
I have a number of conversations with the coaching staff as it relates to lineups, line combinations, and rosters. I generally seek player input on most decisions that I make. That is part of my process in making decisions. They make suggestions and give you information. You make what you think is the best decision.
It is a long season. It is training camp. In preseason, you are going to try some different things. It is just the nature of preseason. You are going to have some guys that aren’t going to play certain nights. That in and of itself is going to move the lines around and the people around. That is going to help with the familiarity process.
As we’ve built out our team structure and team plan, I have really enjoyed the process with the coaching staff and the new guys coming in with Van Ryn and Boucher. They have great experiences and are great coaches themselves who have worked with great coaches and have been around the game for a long time.
We have arrived at a really solid plan to start training camp and preseason. We will build on that as we go.
Keefe on the team’s options on the left wing: “We have five left-wingers who really weren’t with us last season”
On the left wing, whether it is Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, Matthew Knies, or Calle Jarnkrok, do you have an idea of how you want that to shake out yet? Is it an open competition going into camp?
Keefe: You have a plan going in, right? You want to look at different things, but it is a long season. It is a long preseason. We have three weeks here. We have eight preseason games again this season. We have an opportunity to look at different things.
Knies was in here last season a little bit in the playoffs, but when you look at it, we have a lot of different options on the left side now. Not just with Bertuzzi, Domi, and Knies, but you also have Roberston back here healthy and competing. You’ve got Gregor who has come in. You have some real competition there.
I just named five left wingers who really weren’t with us last season. Nick was with us a little bit and Knies right at the end, but there are a lot of new faces there. We will see how it all works.
Starting with Willy in the middle, I don’t know if you can put any sort of label on what line is which or how it works. I just think it presents some real good opportunities from a depth-scoring standpoint.
Keefe on his new assistant coaches Guy Boucher and Mike Van Ryn
How has it been getting to know your new assistant coaches over the last several weeks? Are there any changes to your projection of their roles in terms of PP, PK, and that sort of thing?
Keefe: No changes to the roles as they were presented the last time, but it has been really good to spend more time with them. We were a little bit later in the offseason than you’d like, ideally, to finalize your coaching staff, but it has been tremendous working with both Mike Van Ryn and Guy Boucher. Both have brought a lot to our staff. We still have Dean Chynoweth and Manny Malhotra in place.
I think we have a very complete staff. The delegation of roles is really going to benefit not just me but the players as well. We have great ideas and great experience all the way through the staff. It has been really good working with them.
Once again, it makes me that much more excited to get on the ice tomorrow.
Keefe on the goaltending position and competition for the backup role
How much more comfortable are you with the goaltending now given Ilya Samsonov’s season last year and the competition for the backup role between Joe Woll and Martin Jones?
Keefe: Jones coming in with his experience to come now and push the group is very good and healthy for us. He is very motivated coming in.
Samsonov took a tremendous step last season and has had a terrific offseason based on all the reports and in just talking to him. I think he is in a really good place and has come a real long way from where he was a year ago. That is exciting.
Joe Woll — you don’t want to use the word surprise maybe because he is a highly touted goalie with a lot of talent, but we think he sped up his development last season probably quicker than we expected, especially considering he wasn’t in this camp last year. He was injured and didn’t have much of an offseason, but he has had a full offseason now to build on the experience that he has and the confidence that he should have gained through his time in the net last season. Joe is extremely motivated and looks tremendous. He has been in here a real long time training and getting ready.
We are in a good place there. It will be fun to get those guys out there.
Keefe on Nick Robertson: “He had a tremendous training camp last season, and I fully expect he will again”
What does Nick Roberston need to do to earn a spot in camp?
Keefe: In Nick’s case, it would be pretty similar to his position last summer. Worry about his game, go out, play, compete, and make it obvious that he belongs on the team, can help the team, and can play in the league.
I think he has done that at different times here and there. His ability to find ways to produce consistently in the regular season has been a challenge like it is for a lot of young players. He has to find his way through that. Of course, staying healthy and being available is a big part of it as well.
With the guys we brought in this year, there is going to be a tremendous level of competition there. We have some options to play guys on both wings. It is not like you like look at it and think it is impossible to find your way through. Just go out and make it obvious that you belong.
That is my message to him: Go out and start climbing your way back. This has been a long time since he played. It has been about nine months since he played a game. I know he is really excited. He is a tremendous young player with lots of talent. He does have experience here. He had a tremendous training camp last season for us. I fully expect he will again. It is just a matter of continuing to take those steps.
Keefe on the addition of Ryan Reaves: “We are looking to improve at some of those intangibles in the game and being comfortable in any environment”
What is it like having Ryan Reaves around?
Keefe: Reavo has been tremendous in the time he has been around here with the presence that he has, the confidence that he has, and the life and the energy that he brings. We are well aware of the physicality and what he brings that way. To me, he has played the role probably better than anyone in the league for a long period of time now. For him to come in and have a player of that stature is great.
We have brought in a number of other guys in general. We are looking to improve at some of those intangibles in the game and being comfortable in any environment no matter what the game presents. That is something that Tre has been very open about. I think we were a match right away in that sense in terms of where the team could improve.
I think we have brought in a number of people who can do that for us while still maintaining the skill and the depth that we have offensively. It is a good mix for us this year. In the early going here — just being around the facility — I feel good about the chemistry of the group.