TORONTO — Auston Matthews was feeling pretty lonely on the sidelines, so he had to start fast-tracking his recovery.
The Maple Leafs’ star had been rehabbing alone for weeks following wrist surgery in August, limited to participating in just bits of team practices. That changed over the weekend when Matthews was suddenly back taking some contact ahead of schedule.
“I've just been itching to get out there with the guys; skating solo isn't the same, especially when you're watching the boys have fun out there,” Matthews said on Monday, after his first full practice post-surgery. “So, I was really itching to get back and test it out a little bit and just jumping into some drills and feeling it out. Today was a good step and I felt good, so I’ll just be taking it day by day and we'll see how it goes.”
Matthews’ wrist problems date back to last season, when the nagging issue cropped up early on and ultimately forced the centre to miss four games.
After Toronto’s first-round playoff exit in May, Matthews tried to let the wrist heal on its own. But as his summer training workload increased, it was clear Matthews' wrist couldn’t keep up. So, the 24-year-old decided to go under the knife on Aug. 13 and is eyeing the Leafs’ season opener on Oct. 13 to make his debut in the lineup.
“He did a lot more today than we were expecting, frankly,” coach Sheldon Keefe said after Matthews practised on Sunday, but still left the ice early.
“He shot the puck a lot harder today. It's the first time I saw him really leaning into one-timers. He got into some contact stuff, which we didn’t expect him to do, but he wanted to and felt really good.”
The biggest obstacle for Matthews now is getting his shot back up to speed. The reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner – who scored 41 goals last season despite the wrist injury and missing time – said it’s a good sign he’s been able to handle the puck well lately, but there is more ground to cover.
“I still need to gain some strength back in my arm and my wrist. It's not quite where I want it to be,” he said. “I think the slight pain that I'll feel every once in a while [when I shoot] is just from sitting around for six weeks and not being able to do much and then jumping back into it. It's not bad pain, it's just how it is when you come back from [injuries] and then you're just building back the strength to where it was when I was 100 per cent healthy.”
While Matthews didn’t have the patience to stay away from his teammates, he is willing to wait on his wrist before getting back in a game.
The Leafs have just three exhibition contests remaining – including Monday in Ottawa – before the opener next Wednesday.
Matthews said "there would be a lot of value” in suiting up for a preseason game, perhaps in the finale of Toronto's schedule on Saturday, but there are certain benchmarks that need reaching before that would make sense.
“It’s just puck battles, faceoffs, just getting back into all that,” Matthews said. “And then having to react to certain positions and stick battles. So, it was good to hop into practice today and feel that out. Everything felt good.”
Matthews was decked out in a red no-contact sweater for the duration of Monday’s practice, but joked he didn’t really need it since, “the guys know not to try and run me through the boards right now.”
The important thing is for Matthews to get comfortable again with the physicality of the game, and to feel confident he can withstand being bumped around.
“I think today was good, just getting in the corner with guys and feeling that pressure and feeling the other bodies on you,” he said. “Everything felt pretty solid. Each day has progressed pretty well and the last couple of weeks, being able to turn it up a couple notches and handle the puck and shoot [has been good].”
When Matthews does get into a game, Keefe expects all his one-on-one work with Toronto’s skill coaches to pay off. Matthews may not have enjoyed spending so much time on his own, but after the surgery cost him off-season training time, the extra hours to hone his craft could ultimately help Matthews recreate the kind of success he had last season. And that would make all the frustration worthwhile.
“I know any time I've seen him get a little time to work on something, you see the results,” Keefe said. “That’s the type of athlete that he is. And when he's just dropped into our practices, you can tell that he's there, and you can see the differences, and in the confidence that he has. I’m not worried about him.”