Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach

Ahead of Thursday’s game against the Blue Jackets, Sheldon Keefe discussed Easton Cowan and Fraser Minten making the Team Canada WJC team, Noah Gregor earning his opportunity up the lineup in Matthew Knies’ absence, and Timothy Liljegren nearing a return from injury.

Morning Skate Lines – Dec. 14

How hard is it to manage when a flu bug is going through the room?

Keefe: It seems like everyone goes through it. This is the time of year that it occurs. It seems like it has happened around the league, too. We just have to manage it the best we can.

Our medical people, trainers, and equipment guys are doing all that we can to manage it. We have to work through it.

Morgan Rielly’s ice time went down a little bit vs. the Rangers compared to his usual lately. Was that just a case of trying to manage the defense?

Keefe: I think that is part of having seven guys in. You can share the minutes a little bit better. We think the other guys have done a good job of earning a little bit more trust. That is part of it.

It was also a back-to-back, so any time you go into a game like that, the goal is to try to keep everybody’s minutes down. The game starts, hockey happens, and it doesn’t always work out the way you wanted it to.

Going into it, not just with Morgan, but for all of our top-minute guys, you are trying to bring them down a little bit. The game finishing the way that it did the other night gave us an opportunity to not have to grind through our top people.

How encouraging is it that Fraser Minten and Easton Cowan made Team Canada? What could it mean for the Leafs moving forward?

Keefe: For the players themselves, it is a tremendous opportunity. It is a great tournament. It is sort of the pinnacle of junior hockey in terms of best-on-best.

It is the stakes, right? It’s the stakes, the pressure, representing your country, coming together… It’s all players who are, for the most part, top players on their teams, but now they come in and have to find a role and do different things than they are probably asked to do on their own teams.

Those are the kinds of things that I think really help top-end players to develop. It is all part of becoming a pro: In most cases, you don’t step right in and get the same role that you had in junior hockey. You have to sort of work your way through things.

A chance to play in an event like that, for those reasons, can really help the development of the player, but it is really just a great opportunity for them. I don’t think it has anything to do with us.

I sent them a note yesterday congratulating them and wishing them well. Just go out, be yourselves, and enjoy it. We will certainly be behind not just them but the entire team as the country will.

What stood out to you most about Cowan and Minten when they were here?

Keefe: Their competitive nature. They are both skilled guys, but both are very competitive and confident going out to make a difference. They both seem very confident in who they are.

They have differences in their games for sure, but they are both confident in who they are. They are great, humble personalities in terms of soaking it all in.

I really enjoyed my time with them. Minten played regular-season games for us, but both guys had tremendous camps and earned lots of respect in and around our room and organization.

Credit to them for the job that they did, but then also to take that and not have it be something where they go back to junior and are a little bit big for their britches or anything like that…  They were just themselves, and they are good players. It seems like they have picked up where they left off.

We are excited about them.

Noah Gregor has earned your trust. What have you learned about him over the first quarter of the season?

Keefe: He has taken advantage of every shift that he’s had. His speed is a great threat. There is so much you can do with guys that can skate like that on both sides of the puck. He has done a terrific job on the penalty kill for us.

We have been pretty much healthy on forward all season. There hasn’t been a lot of wiggle room or movement there for him. With Bertuzzi, Knies, and Robertson, those guys have done a good job. You have Marner, Nylander, and Jarnkrok on the right side. It has been tough to get him more because you are trying to get the other guys going just the same. They deserve their minutes.

When things happen and there is an opportunity there, you want to reward a guy who has worked extremely hard. He hasn’t complained or asked questions. He is just taking every shift and every day as it comes. You admire that and you need that as a coach when you are trying to build a team and keep the team moving.

When there is opportunity there for those that deserve it, I think that makes sense for us rather than shuffling everybody around. Just give him that chance and let him go with it.

When do you think Timothy Liljegren can get back into a game?

Keefe: He is close. From a health perspective, I think he is in a pretty good spot. It is just about continuing to build up his conditioning and getting him game-ready.

I can’t remember the last time we practiced here. It has been close to a full week. That has limited his ability to really build himself up and feel confident to go into a game setting. But he is getting really close.

What are the telltale signs of when Auston Matthews is feeling it on a given night?

Keefe: Just how much his legs are moving, how much he is getting the puck to the middle of the ice, and how much he is playing on the attack and shooting the puck. All of the things that happen in the lead-up to a shot — getting out of our zone, getting through the neutral zone, entering into the offensive zone, and attacking the net. From there, he is either earning the puck back or he is immediately working into the next play or the next area to get the puck back and shoot again to start the process.

To me, it puts such stress on the opposition. It not only benefits him but his linemates and the rest of the game. I just find it gets the opposition on their heels far more. To me, that is really what driving play and being an elite player is about. All of the goals and everything else is great, but it comes as part of that process I am talking about.

It also really sets our game up for success in terms of winning a shift, getting the opposition on their heels, and then you want to sort of build it from there, right? The next group comes out with a favourable situation to keep it going and then the next line and the next line. That is ultimately what you are trying to build, and you need your top people to really drive it.

At MSG, he fooled the whole building as though he was going to shoot on Mitch Marner’s goal.

Keefe: To me, there was a segment of time there where he was at times deferring and looking for that pass before building the shot and making people expect the shot or feel threatened by the shot. He is a talented enough guy that he is going to make the right choice when the shot is not there, but if he has that attack mindset, I think it helps everything else fall into place.

That was a terrific play by him to slip that back.