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

Ahead of Saturday’s game against the Avalanche, Sheldon Keefe discussed Pontus Holmberg’s potential, the workload for Martin Jones, Tyler Bertuzzi’s spot in the lineup, the challenge presented by the 2022 Cup champions, and much more.

Morning Skate Lines – January 13

How do you think Martin Jones has handled the workload of starting six straight games, including a back-to-back?

Keefe: I think he has handled it well. We have talked a lot about his experience. He has played a lot in the league at different times throughout his career. He didn’t play much in the first half of our first half of the season for either us or the Marlies. I think he is happy to be in a regular rhythm.

Do you have to get through tonight’s game before deciding on tomorrow night’s starter?

Keefe: Jones won’t play tomorrow. That would be overdoing it. Even though it is a back-to-back at home, he has played a lot this week already. We are going to need another guy tomorrow, but let’s focus on today.

For Pontus Holmberg, who is still developing, do you think there is another gear for him to find?

Keefe: It is hard to say. With his skill set, the next gear for him is to really solidify himself in the league and in the lineup. That is the next gear.

In terms of what it looks like beyond that, it is hard to say. He hasn’t necessarily dominated offensively at the AHL level. You don’t know how much more is there. But with the skill set that he has, beyond solidifying himself in the league, can he be more versatile up and down the lineup? Can his skill set pair well with some of your top players if you need him to? What does that look like for him?

Not that he would ever be a driver of a line offensively, but he is skilled enough to make a play and strong enough to play against some of the bigger, stronger, and quicker guys in the league. He is smart enough to help you defensively. There are lots of good elements there that you like.

That is why it was important for us to get him more involved. In his first go-around this season, from training camp to his first call-up, I always felt that he had more to give us. Part of it was on him and part of it was on us sorting through our lineup and what our bottom six was going to look like.

Last year, we really liked him. We were really excited about him. He played a lot of really good hockey for us. Now, in his second year in North America, he should be far more familiar with the schedule, the demands of the league, the travel, and all of those sorts of things.

I think those are major factors for guys who are a junior or college guy or are a European guy coming in. It is a lot. I felt that the second half of last season really wore on him. I am hoping and looking for growth in that area this year.

You must be looking for better results in the overtime periods. You tried Jake McCabe to start OT on Long Island. Is it a feel thing when it comes to the player selections?

Keefe: It is a bit of a feel and a bit of a historic thing. We have lost a lot of games in the first minute historically with Matthews, Marner, and Rielly together. That is something.

You have Nylander coming next, and you have him paired with Rielly in the second group. It is intriguing and works for us.

Really, it is a bit of a feel thing. Mike Van Ryn comes down and says he likes McCabe to start. Away we go. You are hoping to get through the first bit and then you can get into your lineup.

It didn’t work out the other night. Some of it is historic and some of the things you have been through. Some of it is trying to spread it out a little bit.

Why do you think Tyler Bertuzzi has played his best hockey this season on a line with John Tavares and William Nylander?

Keefe: I just think he pairs really well with John. It is another guy who is really strong below the dots. He hangs around the net. The pace of play matches him really well, too, and yet I do feel that Willy is extremely important to that line as well. He is the puck transporter. He can be puck-dominant. All of those guys can be a lot to handle on the inside and in the offensive zone.

At the same time, early in the season, did it not work with Matthews because it was not a good match or did it not work because there is a lot more going on as you are trying to get comfortable in the lineup, in a new team, in a new city, and all of these things?

As the season goes along here, we are going to have to move Bert around a little bit more just to see. I think he is a guy who can pair very well with different people.

With Auston Matthews a lock for the All-Star Game, are there parts of his skill set or personality that you hope come out when he is away from the day-to-day grind of the season?

Keefe: I hope that whatever Auston wants to have come out of the experience, for Auston, it comes out. That is it.

Auston does a lot for our team and our organization. It is an honour to play in the All-Star Game, especially in this city. For anybody who goes there, it is not on us to put anything on him. It is whatever he wants to make of the experience.

Did you see Kyle Clifford and the other Marlies coming to Dennis Hildeby’s aid after the spearing incident against the Senators last night?

Keefe: I did, yeah. It was good to see. It is not surprising given the character of Cliff, in particular, but also what they are building down there. It comes through in those moments. You see your leadership step up in that regard.

What is the biggest challenge the Avalanche present?

Keefe: I would say the pace of their play, and their top-end guys are so puck-dominant and skilled. They execute at such a high speed. That would be it.

Where do you think Nathan MacKinnon has found a new level this season?

Keefe: It is hard for me to comment on it because you don’t watch them over the whole season. As you get ready to play them, you start to focus a little bit more, but he has been so good for so long. That is it. He has such confidence.

They are leaning on him more than ever. He played 30 minutes the other night. Their top guys are carrying the mail for them in lots of ways. Certainly, he is leading the way.

What is the biggest challenge when the Devon Toews – Cale Makar pairing is on the ice for the Avalanche?

Keefe: First of all, the footwork, the speed, and the way they can work together as a pairing offensively and defensively works really well.

Toews has the ability to make his own plays and finish his own plays, but also, from what I see, he has a great presence of mind to cover and pick his spots well knowing that Makar is going to be really aggressive.

They have a great comfort playing together for a long time and having success together as a pair and as a team. It is certainly a good match. It is one where pucks are hard to come by when those guys are out there.