After Sunday’s practice, Sheldon Keefe discussed Timothy Liljegren’s progress toward a return, the play of the third line, Tyler Bertuzzi’s recent form, and Noah Gregor’s role.
Is there a timeline for Timothy Liljegren’s return?
Keefe: No set timeline other than to say they are really happy with how he has progressed. He has felt good on the ice. He has been able to do a lot more in the early going here than they perhaps anticipated.
That is very encouraging, but I haven’t even been told to expect him in practice any time in the near future yet. He is progressing well. I watched him a little bit out there today. It looks like he is digging well, stopping, and starting.
He has experienced this before when I had him with the Marlies. He had a high-ankle sprain. He has told me that this one doesn’t feel nearly as bad as that one coming back. That is encouraging. We are hopeful that we can get him back in the mix sooner rather than later.
How happy have you been with the third line of Nick Robertson, Max Domi, and Calle Jarnkrok?
Keefe: They have scored us some very important goals. Of course, last night was the most recent. They have the ability to break free and create offense like they have there. Since we have moved Domi to center, it has really sort of snapped some things in a positive direction for our team in terms of being able to control play better.
It has been a little more up and down of late, quite frankly, but we still like some of those elements and how it works. It was a big moment in the game last night. To see those guys come through is really important.
Is one of the differences with Robertson that he is not forcing it as much?
Keefe: I think so. There is growth there. There is maturity in his game. Coming in as a young player, especially as a guy who is used to filling the net consistently, you learn over time that it is a difficult thing to do in the NHL. If you are not going to be able to make the impact that you are accustomed to offensively, it becomes a question of how you can impact or manage the game when you are out there.
It is not just Nick. It is all of our players. Auston Matthews is right near the top of the league in goals, but you are not scoring a goal every game. You are certainly not scoring a goal every shift. You have a lot of time in between there where you have to manage the game.
For a lot of young players, that is the biggest area where they need to grow. Through their maturity, their time in the American league, and all of that, that is really what it is about.
The injuries have naturally slowed Nick down a little bit in terms of his development, but they also have allowed him to mature a little more and gain some greater perspective of how he can fit in within a roster.
Tyler Bertuzzi mentioned that it might have taken longer to adjust to his new team than he wanted it to, but he feels he is there now. Where do you see the growth of his game within this team?
Keefe: I think he has been really good for a long time now. Last night was maybe the most competitive I have seen him on the puck. He just had a heavy stick creating turnovers. I liked a lot about his game last night.
It has been trending in such a good direction for a long time now. He is in a really good place. It took longer than probably any of us would’ve liked. Certainly, for him coming in, you want to impress. You want to do well early.
I think I have said it a couple of times now. It felt like something that was just going to take some time because he is a really good player in the league. I have really been happy with his play.
He got some attention a couple of games ago for one mistake on the ice, but it was interesting how it worked out. I was chatting with him just a day before the game when he made that mistake and told him how great I thought he was playing and how happy we’ve been with him. One mistake doesn’t take away from that.
He has found a really nice groove here. He is moving his feet and is way more involved.
How much have you come to trust Noah Gregor’s game in his short time here?
Keefe: Lots. I go into each game now thinking about how I can get him more involved. That is something that he has earned.
I have talked to him about that. It hasn’t always worked out in terms of the minutes, but even last night, I had him called up in a couple of different situations. The circumstances changed with the faceoff, a TV timeout, or something, and it didn’t come to fruition.
He is inching toward getting more responsibility there. He and Kampf have done a good job for us, by and large, of playing against good players when we need them to.
He has done really well on the PK as well. As we have used him more, our PK has gotten better.
There are lots of really good signs there. He is deserving of more opportunity. That opportunity will come, whether it is just through utilizing all four lines or through pushing some of the others ahead of him and taking some of their minutes away.
What all is involved with taking a player who hasn’t really killed penalties in the NHL and integrating them onto the units?
Keefe: First of all, it is identifying the traits that might make him a good penalty killer so you have reason to believe he can help you. In Gregor’s case, he obviously has great speed. We think he has good anticipation as well.
He came from a place in San Jose that had been one of the top penalty-killing teams in the league. He was sort of at the bottom of a group of guys who penalty-killed. He didn’t give a lot of minutes in games, but as it usually works out, you become a regular penalty killer in practice. He had enough reps there.
From there, it is about spending time with it. Dean Chynoweth has done a good job of working with the penalty killers individually. Between Gregor, Matthews, Nylander, and Knies, we have four guys that we have used on the PK that haven’t really killed penalties in the NHL. It has taken time for that to come together, and we’ve been really happy with it.
I think it first comes with showing some belief in the player.
Is it fair to say you’ve been comfortable with the players who have filled in on the blue line in the wake of the injuries?
Keefe: The guys have done a good job. They really have. With Lagesson and Benoit, even before Timmins came back healthy, they have done a good job. They are managing the game well when they are out there. We have seen growth in their game offensively, too. We do need that.
When I say offense, I am talking more about breaking the puck out and helping us get out of our zone. We think that is the next area where they can continue to grow.
Defensively, the guys have battled. They have gotten in the way. They have good instincts and good sticks. They are two of our biggest defensemen in terms of height and length. They have added some different elements there that have been welcome.
Credit to them for stepping in at a time when we have had to ask lots of minutes of them, especially of late. We have been really happy with them. It is often difficult to find mistakes defensively with them. If there are mistakes, they are not related to effort or competitiveness. Those guys are giving us everything that they have.
Is there a telltale sign that is obvious with Auston Matthews when he is on his game?
Keefe: Skating and just attacking. He and I have had this conversation about him being more assertive in shooting the puck. That is a big piece of who he is and what he can do for our team.
It is not just the goals but a lot of chaos and randomness that can occur when he shoots the puck. It creates a little bit of panic for the opposition. They can leave their positioning, and it affects their ability to cover other people or on the retrievals and such.
That is a big part of it for me — just continuing to make sure he has that mindset.
Does Matthews get too choosey at times?
Keefe: Recently, there have been some examples where he has deferred to others and has tried to make plays. There are plays available that are there, but there are certain players on your team that you would rather they be more focused on the net, attacking, taking on a defender, or taking on the goaltender. The play can come off of whatever comes after that rather than looking for someone else.
Auston, without a doubt, is one of those players who you want to be assertive in that way. Generally, as a team, that is one of the things we have been talking about — not overpassing the puck, challenging the goaltender, making him make a save, and let’s be good with whatever happens next.
That is an area we have tried to improve on as a team. When it is not going well, it is usually because we have gotten away from that.