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

After Thursday’s practice, Sheldon Keefe discussed the return of Mark Giordano to the lineup tomorrow night in Columbus, the team’s recent dip in form (three losses in the last four), the play of the Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander line, and much more.

Practice Lines – Dec. 28

What does it do for the team to get the experience of a Mark Giordano back in the fold?

Keefe: His experience, his leadership presence, and everything that he brings to us… One of the things that is maybe understated is how he can move the puck in all three zones for us quickly and efficiently. We like that.

It is important for us to get him up to speed here and get him going. We haven’t practiced much as a team in the last month, but getting him game reps is going to be really important.

The guys who have come in for him have done a good job, so now, all of a sudden, we have to make some tough lineup decisions with Gio back and Liljegren coming back recently. We are going to have to make some tough decisions there because those guys have done a really good job for us.

Do you like having the competition for jobs?

Keefe: I do like that. That is what has come out of this. As we came out of preseason, we were maybe a little unsure of what our depth was going to look like down with the Marlies and such.

Benoit and Lagesson, in particular, are two guys who are new to us, we didn’t know what to exactly expect from them, and they have just gotten better and better the more they have played. They are competitive guys who have really helped us defensively. It has been nice that those guys have come up.

Now, you have to make some tough lineup decisions.

It seems like a fine line. In a perfect world where everyone is healthy for the most part, you may not know what the others in the organization could bring, but at the same time, you do want to know what those others bring in case you need it down the line.

Keefe: No doubt. You want to get those questions answered early for sure rather than later. You do want to stay healthy and have your guys available, but when guys do get injured, as a coach and as a team, you don’t sit and fret about it. You just move on. It creates opportunities for others. Sometimes, it turns out to be a positive for the team.

We have really been happy with how those guys have played. At the same time, we are very happy to have Liljegren back in the mix and now Gio getting back up to speed.

Is there a silver lining for Giordano in that it’s been a way for him to get some rest during a long season?

Keefe: Maybe. Time will tell on that. With Gio and any player, it is that balance of rest vs. rust. The older that you get, the harder it is to get back up to it and get going.

We have a back-to-back right away, and for any player coming off of injury, it is maybe not ideal, but perhaps the game reps coming at him fast like that are the best thing for him.

We’ll just take it a day at a time with Gio similar to what we did with Liljegren. It has been a significant time away. With Gio and the nature of his injury, he has been on the ice a lot, has skated a lot, and has worked on his game a lot through it. That could be a real positive. He has been able to stay on the ice consistently.

How valuable do you think it has been for Ilya Samsonov to have a few days to work with the goalie coach in practice coming out of the break?

Keefe: In terms of how it sets up, I think it’s great. It is a chance to get away from the game for a bit and then also come back and have an opportunity to get back up to speed and see the puck.

I have always kind of felt that any time you take a break — such as the three-day break we took — it tends to be difficult on the goalies. They are so used to their routines, seeing pucks, seeing releases, and all of those kinds of things. When you break that, it is harder to get the timing back.

For Sammy, the additional time only benefits him not just because of his own circumstances but also because of the break.

Will he start in Columbus on Friday?

Keefe: Yes, he will.

What are you seeing from William Nylander with John Tavares that you liked before the switch and made you want to go back to it recently?

Keefe: A lot of what we saw [vs. Ottawa]. It’s just the way they attack the net and the way their skill sets mesh together. In our end yesterday, that line — like some of the others — had some issues getting out, but once they got out of our end onto the offensive side of the red line, some of our best and most consistent scoring chances in the game came from that group.

They were all over the net. Bert could’ve had three or four last night. At 2-0, Bert had back-to-back chances right in the inner slot to make it 3-0 and we didn’t convert on that, but that is just kind of the line working together. Willy gets pucks to the net and attacks there. John and Bert are all around it. I liked that part of what I saw from those guys.

The results have been up and down since you called the win over Nashville as the most complete performance of the season. How do you get back to the consistency you’re looking for?

Keefe: That is always the goal, but it remains a challenge for us. There are two different things: consistency in results and consistency in process and performance. There are two different things there. Sometimes, you can mesh them together and get confused as to what is really happening.

[The Ottawa game] is an example. There are lots of things in the game that I would like us to do a lot better, and yet we probably could have scored five or six quite easily. On a different night, we might have. That is the results part of it, but the process piece as we go through it in great detail, there are lots of things offensively and defensively — with and without the puck — that I’d like to see us get better at.

As we get healthier on defense, perhaps that really helps us, but it is not just a defense thing for me. It is the whole group working together as a group of five.

In terms of working on that process, how does the Ottawa game influence what you worked on today in practice?

Keefe: I thought we had a little bit of a different plan before yesterday’s game for today’s practice. We made some adjustments. In our game, how we played, and also how the players looked as the game wore on especially, it looked like a group that hadn’t skated in a few days. Competitively, I thought we slipped as the game went on.

It’s just getting up to game speed. The games are coming. We have a back-to-back here. We had to make sure our competitive level was high today while also making sure we got lots of touches of the puck.

In terms of facing Columbus for the third time in a month, are there benefits to all of the recent familarity?

Keefe: Probably the greatest benefit is just the preparation. We can spend that much more time on ourselves, which is really important all the time but right now especially coming off of the break and the result last night. It allows us to focus on our team and our game.

The preparations are fairly simple because they have already been done from the coaching perspective. For the players themselves, it is fresh on their minds. They don’t need to hear too much about Columbus. We just have to make sure our game is ready to go. You want to respond coming off of the result last night.