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

After Monday’s practice, Sheldon Keefe discussed the call-up of Dennis Hildeby, the waiving of Ilya Samsonov, David Kampf returning to the lineup after the healthy scratch, and the team’s overall play entering 2024.

Practice Lines – January 1

What is your first impression of Dennis Hildeby?

Keefe: Obviously, it is not my first impression. He has been with us. We have been watching and monitoring him closely.

The size stands out. That would be the first and obvious thing when you meet him or see him on the ice. The other piece is that he has just got a great demeanor about him and a great attitude. He’s a very positive and nice guy who is willing to work and learn.

I would imagine all of those things are the reason why he has gotten off to such a great start with the Marlies and why, when we need a guy, he is that guy. Credit to him for the work that he has done.

What is your plan in net now?

Keefe: Just to take each day as it comes and try to get him up to speed at the NHL level. NHL shooters are a different animal as he may have learned when Auston came down and blew one by him in one of the first drills.

You want him to get comfortable, which is what we saw as more and more of the skate went on. You could really see that he was getting comfortable in his reads. With the size, a lot of pucks just hit him.

The plan is just to get him comfortable here. He is the second guy right now. Your job is to be ready for any opportunity that might come up or any time that we may need you.

As we look at our week ahead with this back-to-back that is coming, we haven’t ruled out utilizing Jones in both of those games. As far as back-to-backs go, it is probably the easiest one you are going to get on the road in terms of not having a flight or anything like that. Instead of bussing to the airport, we will be bussing to change hotels.

We will take it a day at a time. It is about him enjoying his time here and maximizing it, whether it is to be ready for us or to just continue his development.

If Ilya Samsonov clears, what are your plans for him in the next little bit?

Keefe: We have to wait and see on that. From my perspective, I hope he clears and remains here. If that is the case, there is a plan in place where we can continue to work with him. It would honestly just be a continuation of what has been happening here.

But it is just basically removing him from the situation to focus solely on himself and his game. You take it from there. From my perspective, he is a good goalie who has played a lot of good hockey for us. We have to do all that we can to get him back to that. That would be the plan.

How big of an advantage is to have a veteran like Martin Jones around at a time like this and ahead of a trip against a bunch of teams he knows well?

Keefe: Huge to have him here and how he has played for us. If you look at it, coming into today’s practice, we had goalie #3 — Marty Jones — and goalie #5 — Hildeby — when we came into training camp. Petruzzelli was getting some more time than Hildeby, who was going to take the year for it to be a developmental season for him. Now, we have those two guys here. You are counting on them.

To have someone with Jones’ experience in the league to be calm and confident has really helped our team. He is going into familiar buildings, as you mentioned. I hadn’t thought of that a great deal, but that is the value of having the experience.

On the other side of it, a young guy like Hildeby is an older goaltender than most that are playing in their first year in the American league, but he still has a long way to go and a lot to learn. For him to come up and — in our situation — still have a veteran to lean on, watch, and learn from is very valuable for him as well.

What is your sense of the group overall as we enter the new year?

Keefe: The group feels good. We haven’t gotten the results that we want here since coming back, but we felt quite good about a lot of the things we have been doing.

In the last couple of games, in particular, on the back-to-back with Columbus and Carolina, I thought we did a lot of good things and very easily could have had four points coming out of that. It wasn’t the case. That continues to drive you.

Just focusing on how we have played, there has been a ton of really good things there. When you step away from the results… In Columbus, a lot of pucks go in our net, and against Carolina, we make some mistakes on special teams on the PK that end up in our net. At five-on-five, those were two of our best efforts of the season in terms of not giving up very much.

In the Carolina game, there is not much between the two teams. I think that sets us up well for this trip that starts off in LA. If you look at Carolina and LA, it is two of the best defensive teams in the NHL. Coming out of the Carolina game, we should know exactly what we are in for in terms of the challenge that we have going into LA.

John Tavares mentioned that there are some unique aspects to the Kings’ game defensively. What do you see when you look at the tape?

Keefe: They are 1-3-1 through the neutral zone. They are not the only team in the league to do that, but they have done it longer and probably better than anybody in the league. That kind of sets up a lot of their defensive game.

A lot of it, too, is a mindset. They close well. They have good sticks similar to Carolina. They just take away your space and time. Whether that is on the PK or at five-on-five, they make it really hard to get to their net.

It is going to be a game about working, pace, and patience. It is a big part of it. It was the other night, too, against Carolina. Special teams were the difference, and ultimately, they were able to get one more goal than us.

That is what I would expect in the next game — for it to be really, really tight — and we have to find a way to get on the right side of it.

David Kampf looks like he is returning to the lineup. What are you hoping he takes out of the scratch on Saturday heading into the trip and beyond?

Keefe: Just the urgency we need him to have and really understanding what his role is. He is a very, very important player for us. We need him to really take charge of that role and his line. That is really it. It is a bit of a reset in recognizing that we are serious about the urgency we need him to have.

I think he has played good hockey here in the last month or so. To me, the other night was a bit of a step back toward some of the issues I was having with him earlier in the season, which we had talked a number of times about, and gave him opportunities to keep going and playing through it — which he had, but when some of the same mistakes are showing up and the results for our team aren’t there, I think you elicit a response from the coach. That is kind of the way that it goes.

It does not change how we feel about Kampfer and what he means to our team. He is a very, very important player for us. We need him to be better, and he will be.

Ryan Reaves said he is feeling good after getting back on the ice. He hopes to be available on the trip. Do you feel he is in a position to get back soon?

Keefe: Today was his first practice with the team. It has been a few weeks since he has been able to skate. I would say he is not quite there yet from my perspective. From a health perspective, he seems to be working his way there. Working his way up to game speed and being ready to play is another thing.

Now we will get out to California, and we don’t have any practices until the day before San Jose. We will see where he is then, but from my perspective, he is not ready at this stage. We need to keep building him up.