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

Ahead of Sunday’s game against the Red Wings, Sheldon Keefe discussed the decision to start Ilya Samsonov in net for the first time since December 29, reducing John Tavares’ ice time in the third period vs. Colorado, the team’s performance through the first half of the season, and Morgan Rielly’s appointment to the All-Star Game.

Morning Skate Notes – January 14

Have you decided on who will start in goal tonight?

Keefe: Samsonov is going to start today. We have gone through it. It is a big decision for a lot of reasons both for Sasmonov and Hildeby. You kind of go through it, and as an organization, you make a plan for Sammy. Going on waivers and going down, the plan was communicated to you guys by Tre.

He has done the work. You have to give him a chance to get back in and see if it has made any sort of progress. Once the decision was made that they didn’t want him to play any AHL games, I think we needed to get him back in a game here and see where he is at. We need to do a good job in front of him. He has done the work to be ready for today. We will get him in there.

How much did you consult Curtis Sanford in making the decision to start Samsonov?

Keefe: A lot. It is a bigger decision than just me or Curtis, though.

You have a guy who is our number-one goalie and our highest-paid goalie. You have a top prospect in Hildeby. It is an organizational thing where you go through all of the different pros and cons. You monitor the situation. Getting Hildeby a game down in the American league was important just to see where he is at and get him into that game action.

You go through it all. When you are making a decision like this, it is not just a “feel” decision based on what the coach thinks. You are consulting everybody and trying to do what is right for the team and the player. Some of it is bigger-picture-focused and not just focused on tonight’s game.

How did John Tavares take it last night when you limited his ice time in the third period? Did you talk to him about it?

Keefe: He took it fine. I think the message is sent. John knows he wasn’t his best last night. He’ll be good tonight.

Will you go back to Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander line?

Keefe: We will see.

How is the mood around the group after a tough loss last night?

Keefe: The mood is not great. It is tough to come in after a night like that, but it is a chance to kind of reframe some things in their minds and get them primed for tonight.

It is always tough on the back-to-back to wake up and come right back to the rink the next morning as it is, especially after a loss like last night’s. They had time today to rinse it completely. We are back at it tonight for a big divisional game.

Are there any lineup changes you can tell us about?

Keefe: Giordano will be out tonight. Timmins will come in. Aside from that, we had a couple of injuries last night — one that is probably going to require a lineup change and at least one that will be a game-time decision. We will get that sorted out tonight.

Do the injuries involve Auston Matthews?

Keefe: No.

What motivated the changes on the PK?

Keefe: I am just sick of seeing the puck going in our net in the first 10 seconds or whatever it is. We can’t just around and do the same old thing. That is two games in a row where it hasn’t been good enough off of the start.

We are just changing it up. Jarnkrok and Nylander did a good job for us in leading the way. Changing the order is something we haven’t done. We just have to try some different things. That is what we did last night.

With the season hitting game #41, how do you feel about the state of the team at the halfway point?

Keefe: We chatted a little bit about it this morning. There are a couple of things as you approach the halfway point. It is a chance to reflect but also know there is a lot of hockey left to be played. It feels like we have played a lot of hockey, and you’re only halfway there.

A lot can happen and a lot has happened through to this point. Just in the last little stretch, it sort of shows where we have been.

At times, we have been really, really good and consistent. If you look at the stretch on that road trip where we came back against San Jose here in Toronto, we played different types of opponents and different types of games, but we showed a lot of maturity in our game in managing those situations. We were in a good place.

In the last couple of games, we built leads and did a good job to get ourselves into positions to win games and then we failed to close it, which is also kind of showing where we have been as a team. It has been a similar type of situation.

What we are seeking in the second half is greater consistency with who we are. That is really it. Tonight, as we welcome a divisional opponent who is right there on our heels, it is a good chance for us to get to that halfway point as we prepare to go on the road for a difficult road trip and the difficult rest of the month.

This is a big hockey game for us today. You are really looking for that consistency in who we are.

How important and special do you think it is for Morgan Rielly to make the All-Star Game given he has been the longest-serving Leaf and it is in Toronto?

Keefe: Very special. Very fitting. It is somewhat surprising that it has taken this long for him to get that acknowledgment, which is probably a mix of a reflection of the quality of players in the league but also the quality of players on our team. He has been lost in that shuffle a little bit at times.

The fans had their say. Being right here in Toronto, it is very fitting. He has done so much for this organization. He has been so committed to our team finding success. He is having such a good year. For it to be right here and for him to be representing our team in front of our fans and in front of the league, I think it is terrific for both him and Willy, in particular.

Those are two guys who have been such an important part of our team this season especially, and a lot of years before this one, of course. They have been terrific for us all season. It is a wonderful acknowledgment for them and so well deserved.

Is Morgan one of the more modest players you have coached?

Keefe: For sure. I think that is why he is so popular. For every teammate that comes through here, he is a guy who pulls people together and people are drawn to him. I think our fans see those kinds of things. No doubt, he is a very well-respected player and teammate in the league.