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

Ahead of Monday’s game against Pittsburgh, head coach Sheldon Keefe discussed John Tavares’ role as a matchup center, William Nylander’s progression over his career, Joel Edmundson’s timeline for a return, and the challenge against the Penguins.

Morning Skate Lines – Apr. 8

Since you have been leaning on John Tavares and his line in the matchup game, what have you liked about it that made you want to continue with it?

Keefe: I think John — really all season long — has done a terrific job of managing his game and managing the game when he is out there, which makes it harder on the opposition that way.

In my experience, when John has been given a responsibility in particular matchups, he takes it very seriously. He is very committed to it. He respects the opposition a lot. When I say that, I mean that his decision-making is very sound in that he won’t push or overdo offense. He will respect their game and make sure they are in good spots defensively. He tends to control the game a little bit better for us that way. That is part of it.

The other part is that we have tried Auston with a different look and feel. A lot of times, he has to take that responsibility. It has been a little bit different that way.

John — over my time here, when he is tasked with it and that is how the matchups work out — does a good job with it.

William Nylander is coming up on 600 NHL games. How have you seen his game evolve since you were coaching him with the Marlies?

Keefe: I would say the consistency piece is really the biggest difference. He has always had the ability to be a game-breaker and make plays. He has just done it with great consistency as he has gotten older and gained more experience.

This season has been his best in terms of his production and such. As he has found more consistency, his importance to the team has grown that much more, especially in a season like this one where we have had a lot of change and a lot of different things happening between injuries and players who have come in and are trying to find their way. The way Willy started the season got us through some tough times.

It goes to show that he, on any given night, is the player for us. He is not just one of the guys. A lot of nights, he has been the player. That is great to see. He has done it more nights this year than he ever has. It shows up in the stats and also in the video side of it.

It has been great fun to watch.

How would you describe Mitch Marner’s importance to the power play and the impact he can make on it as you look to turn it around on the man advantage?

Keefe: It is huge. You really felt it when we didn’t have him. We had one power play the other night, but we lost the faceoff on it and the first unit could only get up to about 30 seconds of time in the zone. It was not a great time to get him back re-introduced.

It’s everything — the entry, his ability to enter there with an additional right shot with his skill level, and it allows us to be a lot more fluid with our movement with the different options you end up with in the zone.

The other part of it is that he is probably the most vocal guy that we have when it comes to the power play, whether it is pre-game off the ice, when we get a power play and are on the way to the faceoffs, or TV timeouts. Mitch, usually, is the guy who kind of pulls the group together and gives it some direction in terms of getting the guys focused. Those are the things you don’t necessarily see, but you definitely miss when he is not around, in addition to the skill set.

We are hoping we can get some power plays the remainder of the way and we can get that group really going. They have spent a lot of time together over the years, but we have changed some things throughout the season as we have gone along. With the plan we have, Mitch is an integral piece of it. We certainly missed him when he wasn’t there.

How close to returning is Joel Edmundson?

Keefe: He is close. This week is a possibility, but not today or tomorrow. He will continue to progress. He’ll see the doctor soon to get that final assessment of where he is at, but he is really close.

What benefits do you see to playing an opponent that is fighting for its playoff life?

Keefe: It gets your attention, right? You know you are going to be in for a game tonight. The challenge is going to be on us to match their urgency level and the competitiveness level.

That is what we talked about this morning: knowing that the other team is coming in here with a real purpose. Our purpose has to remain to play a good, sound game in a game that means a lot to the opposition. We have to pull that same meaning out of it.

Given your familiarity with some of the people in Pittsburgh, are you not surprised that they are making a good run at making the playoffs?

Keefe: I don’t follow it that closely, but each time we have been preparing to play Pittsburgh throughout the season, you look at it and see they are doing a lot of really good things as a team. It hasn’t always fallen into place for them, but I am not surprised that they have had a push here with the leadership group they have on the ice and their culture over there.

It makes a lot of sense when you look at their team, look at their players, and look at the guys who drive the bus for them. It is good to see them making a push and making things interesting.

It is a good challenge for us tonight. We want to do our part to make it hard on them.