Sheldon Keefe, Maple Leafs morning skate
Sheldon Keefe, Maple Leafs practice

Ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Kings, Sheldon Keefe discussed Simon Benoit’s emergence on the blue line, Auston Matthews’ NHL second-star honours for the month of December, and the plan in net for the back-to-back.

Morning Skates Notes – January 2

What stands out about Simon Benoit’s play over the last month or so that has allowed him to earn your trust as the rest of the blue line got healthy?

Keefe: Generally speaking, he has just done a really good job of limiting anything against. He has really stabilized our group that way. Even when we had our injuries and he was playing a lot — and playing some tough matchups — it just seemed that he did a really good job of protecting our net and keeping pucks and people away from our net. That is a big piece of it.

The other part is the obvious piece: He is our biggest defenseman. He is our most physical defenseman. To me, he just continues to get better. If he makes mistakes, he is working hard at it. He is a very coachable guy who will continue to grow within our team.

It looked like Benoit’s pairing went out consistently with the Matthews line in Columbus. Is that something you were planning to do, and how do you feel about putting together groups of five?

Keefe: In some cases, especially if you are really trying to generate some offense, it works out a particular way because of the matchup you are looking for on the ice with the opposition. Sometimes, those things conflict and you kind of have to get away from them because you are trying to generate offense or whatever it might be.

Certainly, we don’t like to put Benoit in too many offensive situations, quite frankly, but it was more of a reflection of some of the matchups and the opponents that we are playing against.

We do like Benoit’s ability to play against some of the other team’s bigger players. That is sort of how that works out.

We haven’t talked much about the groups of five. We are trying to get Rielly out for as many offensive-zone faceoffs with Matthews or Tavares as we can — that is something we talk about — but aside from that, it is really just happenstance more than anything.

Auston Matthews was named the NHL’s second star of the month with 15 goals in December. What is next for him in terms of what he can do if there is such a thing?

Keefe: Just stay with it. He has been a very good and consistent scorer in the league. Continuing to drive our team is really it. He has done a really nice job of that. As we all know, it was a great December.

I thought the other night against Carolina was a tough night for everyone. There is not much offense out there that is available, but in our game against Columbus coming out of the Christmas break, I thought he was maybe the best he has been all season. That is saying a lot because he has been really good, but I thought he, Mitch, and Knies were as dominant as we have seen from one line. That is more of what we need from him.

In particular, against a team like the Kings where there is not a whole lot out there happening, he has to drive it for us.

Are you seeing signs that Matthews and Mitch Marner are getting back to what they have been together in the past?

Keefe: That Columbus game was as close as it has looked to me when I have seen those guys at their absolute best in terms of being connected, making plays, being on the puck, demanding the puck, and being on the offensive side of the red line with the puck making it hard on the opposition. That was the best I have seen them together in quite some time.

Against Carolina the other night, it didn’t go nearly as well for anyone just because of the task defensively. There is not as much ice available. Tonight is going to be the same. We need them to find ways to break free against this type of defense.

Is there a benefit for Dennis Hildeby to join the team just as it goes out on a road trip as far as getting comfortable with the group?

Keefe: I would say so. It is not something I thought a lot about, but getting him into a practice yesterday was really important for us. That is why we sent Holmberg down for a day: to clear up the space to get Hildeby in the mix and be able to get that practice in before coming out here rather than just waiting for the Samsonov situation to play out. That was important for us.

Spending time with the guys on the plane — it is our longest flight of the year — in and of itself gives time to see lots of faces, talk to guys, get comfortable, and get a feel for life in the NHL. To that end, I think there are lots of positives to it.

Will you decide on whether Hildeby will start against Anaheim after the game tonight?

Keefe: Yeah, it will be more to do with where Jones is at. It has less to do with Dennis but more so with Jones, how he does today, more how he feels after the game today, and what the game looks and feels like going into tomorrow.

Today is another chance for Hildeby to get out there, work with some of our guys, and work with Curtis [Sanford]. As I told him, His job while here is to be ready at any particular time. That is what he will continue to do.

Trevor Moore has been with the Kings for a while, but do you take pride in helping him develop into the player he has become in the NHL?

Keefe: I don’t spend too much time on that. Trevor has done a lot of work himself, obviously.

He really worked through what was not the most comfortable and easy adjustment to pro hockey in the American league. He really worked his way through it to become a vital piece of our Calder Cup championship. He never really looked back from there.

I am not surprised because of the skill level, work ethic, and attitude that he has.

What is the challenge the Kings present?

Keefe: Best defensive team in the league. Best penalty kill in the league. You have to expect that offense will be tough to come by. They keep scores and games close. There is that much more pressure on us to defend well, protect our own net, and capitalize on the opportunities that we have.

It certainly is a big challenge for us tonight. Yesterday, I watched the first period and what they did to the Oilers in here tonight. That is the way games can look and can start. That is a lot of how the game went when we played these guys earlier in the season.

We are going to have to be at our best, no doubt.