Keefe throws challenge at Travis Dermott

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TORONTO – In public and in private, Sheldon Keefe has issued a challenge to Travis Dermott.

“I’m still waiting — and I’ve had this conversation with Travis — for him to take that next step,” Keefe said Saturday, prior to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 4-1 preseason cruise over the Ottawa Senators.

“Right now, he’s still in that mix with [Rasmus] Sandin and [Timothy] Liljegren. And at this stage, he wants to be a guy who’s more established and taking that step. We’re still looking for that.”

Yikes. A polite and measured yikes. But still: a yikes.

Sandin is 21 years old with 37 career NHL games on his resume.

Liljegren is 22 with 13 games.

Both prospects spent chunks of last season with the Marlies and on the taxi squad. Both had rocky roads to the 2021-22 Leafs opening roster, battling through injuries in a pandemic.

Dermott is 24 with 208 big-league games. He was just awarded a two-year, $3-million extension over the summer.

He missed some preseason action dealing with a calf issue and skated at least three fewer minutes than all other Leafs defenders in Saturday’s dress rehearsal (14:11). He threw one hit and had two giveaways.

By this point in his development, the Newmarket, Ont. native should be entrenched as the fifth-best defenceman, pushing to crack the top four.

Yet his head coach currently views him as one of three options for his bottom pair and a secondary penalty killer.

“Certainly, he brings value to our group in the five, six hole,” Keefe explained. “He has played higher in the lineup when needed and has done a pretty good job, but I think he would like to get to the point where that’s something that’s consistent — and we haven’t got to that point yet.”

Night in and night out, the Maple Leafs are looking for Dermott to make smart decisions on retrievals and clears, pinches and passes. They want him to take ownership of that chunk of penalty-kill minutes vacated by bruising Zach Bogosian, who rejoined the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. And play more physical — which is not the most natural jump for a 5-foot-11 smooth skater who piled up points as a puck-moving playmaker in junior.

“You’re looking for a young player to really latch onto a role and an identity of what they’re bringing to the team,” Keefe said.

Last season it was more accomplished defenders — Bogosian and, for a spell, Mikko Lehtonen — blocking Dermott’s path up the depth chart.

This season, it’s the kids catching him from behind.

Urgency is in the air early.

Dermott must establish himself, or else he could slip to seventh D-man status.

“A shorter deal is better for me now. Personally, I feel like I still have a lot to prove to myself, to everyone,” Dermott said upon signing his two-year, $3-million contract.

“It’s nice to get two years where I can kind of bear down for two years and see what I can see what I can do with myself and the team.”

The clock is ticking.

Mikheyev injury could affect roster cuts

Skating on John Tavares’ line in a prime opportunity to snatch a top-six role out of camp, Ilya Mikheyev fell awkwardly and suffered a hand injury partway through Saturday’s game.

The winger did not return to action, and Keefe said it looks like it could be a long-term ailment.

Expect an update Monday.

Also Monday — by 5 p.m. ET — all teams must be cap compliant.

As always, the Maple Leafs will be tight to the ceiling. Depending on the length of time Mikheyev could miss, his injury might allow the club to hang on to a forward it might otherwise have demoted to the Marlies.

Stay tuned.

Nylander ‘embracing’ expanded role

Prior to this preseason, when was the last time William Nylander can recall getting tapped to kill penalties?

“It was during practice in Vancouver [last April], the day after I missed that meeting,” Nylander said Saturday, with a sheepish smile.

Uh, does Nylander think that was a coincidence?

“I don’t know, but it had been a while since I’d done it before that. I couldn’t tell you when.”

Well, Nylander has now killed penalties, as a secondary forward option, in each of his 2021-22 exhibition appearances. John Tavares got a PK look Saturday — something he has not done with any regularity since leaving Long Island. And Keefe is open to giving Auston Matthews some 4-on-5 time, too.

The coach is pleased that the offence-leaning Nylander embraced the expanded role as soon as the idea was broached.

“When I spoke with him about it, he had no doubts and no questions. He was ready go. He’s been attentive in the meetings; he’s asked questions. So it’s been really good,” said Keefe, before adding a qualifier. “These are the kind of things preseason is for. Once we get rolling here in the regular season, we’ll see how it all shakes out.”

Nylander won’t be a primary PK option. But in games when a string of kills are needed or if, say, Mitch Marner or Alexander Kerfoot were to get injured, the staff wants multiple capable options.

“So, we just have this opportunity [in exhibition] to gain that confidence that they can do it, and that the coaches believe in them,” Keefe said.

“That’s a really healthy thing for our team.”

Updated Maple Leafs lineup prediction for Opening Night

Ritchie – Matthews*(wrist) – Marner
Bunting – Tavares – Nylander
Engvall – Kämpf – Kase
Spezza – Kerfoot – Simmonds

Extra: Brooks

Injured: Mikheyev

Rielly – Brodie
Muzzin – Holl
Sandin – Dermott

Extra: Liljegren

Campbell

Mrazek

(*health permitting)

One-Timers: Defenceman Alex Biega and forward Kurtis Gabriel were placed on waivers Saturday. If your team needs a feisty energy guy, you could do a lot worse than Gabriel on a one-year, $750,000 deal. Keefe on Biega: “He’s a great veteran player. By all accounts, anybody I have spoken to or anyone in our organization before the decision to sign him is that he’s just the consummate pro, ultimate teammate, works extremely hard every day.”… Big power-play goal for Pierre Engvall Saturday. Fighting for a role on the club, he has three preseason markers in two games played … No Thomas Chabot or Brady Tkachuk in the Sens lineup, but new Leafs assistant Dean Chenoweth’s aggressive penalty kill looked strong, going a perfect four-for four … Does Connor Brown ever play a bad game against the Leafs?… Toronto finishes the preseason with a 5-1 record. “We’re ready to rock,” Morgan Rielly confirmed.

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