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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — Auston Matthews’ wrist isn’t 100 per cent just yet. But it’s starting to look like it’s getting close.

The Maple Leafs’ centre made his return to practice on Tuesday for the first time since undergoing wrist surgery last month. Matthews had been frustrated by the injury throughout last season, but it didn’t stop him from pumping in 41 goals to win the Rocket Richard Trophy. 

So, it was hardly headline news to teammates when Matthews was back to his old tricks so soon after the Aug. 13 operation. 

“Never get surprised with how many goals he scores during practice,” said Rasmus Sandin on Tuesday. “Even when this was his first practice with the team. I love that. He's that [talented] player he is, he’s that leader in our group. He looked really good. It was fun to have him back out there.”

Matthews started the morning in usual fashion, working one-on-one with skills development coach Darryl Belfry. He was focused on puck handling and shooting from in tight, a progression from last week where he was just beginning to fire pucks again. 

Once that was done, Matthews took part in the first 30 minutes of Toronto’s on-ice session, leaving right before they began contact drills. The 23-year-old didn’t speak with media afterward, but the positive step in his recovery was well-received by those who have watched Matthews work through adversity.

“It’s just [a credit to] his diligence,” said Jason Spezza. “He takes the game very seriously. He spends a lot of time on his craft, he's always working on different things. You can tell he's come [into the season] with some things that he's been focusing on here through the summer and he looks great off the ice and we're excited to see him on the ice.”

Matthews didn’t go into the off-season anticipating surgery. When Toronto was ousted from the first round of the playoffs in May, he expected the extra downtime would allow his wrist a chance to heal. When he still felt uncomfortable in late summer, a second consultation with doctors suggested going under the knife was Matthews’ best way forward.

There is no timeline at this point as to when Matthews might be cleared for contact, or whether getting into any of the Leafs’ four remaining exhibition games is realistic.

The only goal is that Matthews is ready when Toronto opens its season against Montreal on Oct. 13. Spezza believes Matthews has given himself a great shot at making that happen. 

“It’s probably why he chose to have the surgery when he did, so he could give himself ample time to get back,” Spezza said. “[If you do it] in-season, sometimes you push the envelope a little more, trying to get back quicker. So, they're going to make sure that he's taking the right steps. But you always feel a little bit left out when you're not with the group and it's a tough feeling as an athlete. So, the sooner we get him back in the mix, it’ll help.”

There’s no question the Leafs need Matthews at his best to achieve their collective ambitions this year. Not only is the 23-year-old coming off a Rocket Richard win, but he was also Toronto’s first finalist for the Hart Trophy in 66 years (that award ultimately went to Connor McDavid).

The wrist problem forced Matthews to miss four games in 2020-21, but he still ranked second on the team in points (66) and averaged the second-most ice time among forwards (21:33). 

While Matthews’ overall numbers were impressive, Spezza noticed how Matthews emerged as a complete player. 

“I thought last year, he went to another level in terms of just competitiveness and wanting to be the guy every night, wanting to have the tough matchups,” Spezza said. “And I think he's going to go to even another level where he gets even more confident in that. Just being able to handle the minutes he plays and being as consistent as he is, I think that's just a testament to how serious he takes things in his preparation and just [how he’s] the whole package.”

Granted, Matthews will need a few more full practices under his belt before anyone can assess where he’s really at post-surgery. But given Matthews accomplished what he did last season while struggling with his wrist, it sets a high bar for what he can get done this year with that problem taken care of.

“The sky's the limit for him,” said John Tavares. “I know he just wants to continue to improve and not rest on what's made him successful. But I think what's really impressive, especially battling the injury last year, is just his ability to adapt his game. He has such a unique shot and release and his ability to adjust and adapt when that's not always going to be available to him is such a key factor why he's just so consistent and so dangerous.”