The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to open the NHL season without their best player.
Auston Matthews had wrist surgery on August 13 and initial reports suggested a six-week recovery process which would have had him ready for the start of training camp and then ready to start the first game of the regular season. That was the objective.
“Auston’s not at the point right now where he is feeling comfortable playing,” said Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe after Monday’s practice. “He’s not going to be available for us for this week.”
While Matthews has been practicing, he is not yet ready for game action and will miss at least the first three games. That means Toronto’s star scorer will miss Wednesday’s season-opening home game against Montreal as well as a pair of games against the Ottawa Senators, Thursday on the road and Saturday at home.
“I’m dying to get in and play, honestly, get reps with the guys,” Matthews said following Tuesday’s practice. “But I think it’s one of those things that I’ve got to be patient with, be disciplined as far as that goes and make sure I am feeling 100% comfortable going in.”
The Maple Leafs have to adjust their lineup and, even with a lot of talent on the roster, it is not easy making up for the loss of the league’s leading goal scorer.
MAPLE LEAFS LINES SHUFFLE
John Tavares will skate in Matthews’ spot between Nick Ritchie and Mitch Marner on Toronto’s top line, while Alexander Kerfoot is going to centre the second line, between Michael Bunting and William Nylander. That is a perfectly fine top six, but it does not make up for missing Matthews.
The Maple Leafs have a lot of new forwards in the mix this season and that might offer head coach Sheldon Keefe more flexibility if the Maple Leafs are struggling early. He could put those lines in a blender and see what comes out.
“He’s not very far away here. Our most important thing right now is to make sure he is 100% comfortable,” said Keefe about his star centre. “I am not expecting him to be available for any of the first three games.”
AUSTON MATTHEWS IMPACT
Since arriving in the league in the 2016-2017 season, Auston Matthews has scored 199 goals in 334 games, ranking second, behind only Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, who has 205 goals in that time. Matthews won his first Rocket Richard Trophy last season, leading the league with 41 goals in 52 games.
Not only does Matthews finish like few others but the Maple Leafs dominate with him on the ice. Last season, when Matthews and Mitch Marner were on the ice during 5-on-5 play, the Maple Leafs outscored the opposition 49-23 (68.1 GF%). The rest of the time, the Maple Leafs outscored opponents 83-72 (53.5 GF%) during 5-on-5 play, so even a short Matthews absence is going to be significant.
Marner and John Tavares played together a lot in 2018-2019 but in the past couple of seasons, Marner has been more tightly aligned with Matthews. In the past two seasons, Marner and Tavares have played 406 minutes together during 5-on-5 play and while their shot differentials have been okay (51.5 CF%) the duo has been outscored 26-15 (36.6 GF%), a stark contrast to Marner’s success with Matthews.