TORONTO — Auston Matthews made a brief appearance at Maple Leafs practice on Thursday but unexpectedly exited the session before it began, leaving his availability for Friday’s game against Edmonton up in the air.
“He just wasn’t feeling that great today coming off [Wednesday’s 3-1 loss to the Oilers],” head coach Sheldon Keefe told reporters on a Zoom call following Thursday’s practice. “So he’s going to take the rest of the day here today and we’ll see how he is tomorrow and [provide] an update in the morning.”
Matthews was the Leafs’ best player in Wednesday’s defeat, recording the team’s only goal and pacing all skaters with six shots in 24:14 of ice time. Other than speaking with trainer Paul Ayotte on the bench prior to Thursday's practice, Matthews showed no outward signs of injury before his departure.
The news of Matthews' potential absence comes on the heels of Toronto already having lost veteran forward Joe Thornton for an undetermined period. Thornton was crunched into the boards by Josh Archibald early in the third frame on Wednesday, and hurried off while cradling his left wrist.
Keefe reiterated on Thursday that Thornton’s issue is not a “day-to-day thing,” and he’s “definitely going to miss some time,” but that they’ll get more information from planned tests later in the week.
The Leafs are also without forward Nick Robertson for the next month or so, as he rehabs a leg injury suffered on Jan. 16.
To account for the missing bodies, Keefe shuffled the Leafs lines at practice in a tune-up for Friday’s rematch with Edmonton. Jimmy Vesey was elevated into Thornton’s spot on Toronto’s top line with Mitch Marner and Adam Brooks (who filled in for Matthews), Zach Hyman slid onto the wing with John Tavares and William Nylander, and Wayne Simmonds slotted onto the third line with Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev. Winger Pierre Engvall looks to be stepping into the lineup for the first time this season with Jason Spezza and Alex Barabanov on the fourth line.
“We’ll see how it all comes together. There’s a lot of things happening,” said Keefe. “The health and well-being of our players is one thing, [then] salary cap and all those things affect the decision. So, we’ll see how it settles for tomorrow. But the expectation is that [Matthews and Marner] will drive their line, and we need a support player with them [in Vesey]. It allows us to use our depth throughout the lineup. Hyman can bring an extra boost to JT and Will.”
Toronto made a point of trying to bolster its depth in the off-season with a number of acquisitions, including Simmonds and Vesey. Now, barely a week into this pandemic-shortened regular season, the Leafs can assess just how successful they were in adding versatile pieces to the lineup.
“This year more than any year I think that your depth is going to be tested and, fortunately for us, we have a ton of guys who can move up and down the lineup and be filling holes,” said Hyman. “So I think that it's a big opportunity for guys to seize the moment and play like they're capable of playing. In a season like this, you need everybody.”
Some losses will be more difficult than others to weather, though. Thornton has been a big part of the Leafs offence early on, averaging 15:26 of ice time per game between his spot with Matthews and Marner and appearing on the team’s No. 1 power-play unit.
The trickle-down effect is that other veterans, like Simmonds, will be thrust into larger roles, but there are some intangibles that only Thornton can truly provide.
“He's amazing. His personality is infectious,” said Kerfoot. “He comes to the rink every day with a smile on his face and when you're around him, you want to be there, you want to work hard. Just one of those guys that brings guys to him. [That said], it's going to be great [playing with Simmonds].He's a big body and we can use that to get open around him, use our speed to open things up a little bit. He's easy to read off makes good little plays with the puck. It's going to be fun tomorrow.”
However the final lineup plays out for Friday’s game, the Leafs acknowledged they’ll have to find more middle ground between good offence and sound defence if they expect to get a win.
After Wednesday’s disappointing end, Matthews accused his team of playing “too safe” and focusing more on containing Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl than executing a game plan. Holding those Oilers superstars to a goal and assist between them was a fine enough accomplishment, except it didn’t deliver the final result the Leafs needed.
Fortunately, they don’t have to wait long to try to correct their mistakes.
“I think we need to find the balance,” Hyman said. “I think just because we're defending well doesn't mean that we can be attacking and playing well in the o-zone and taking pucks to the net and doing things we are capable of doing. We can have them both, you don't have to have one without the other and really have to find that balance.”