TORONTO — Auston Matthews isn’t at his best. And he won’t play again until he is.
The Maple Leafs’ star let it be known on Monday that despite his best efforts to recover from off-season wrist surgery in time for Toronto’s regular season opener on Wednesday, he’s just not quite there. So, Matthews is putting his debut on ice until he’s fully up to the task.
“I just don't personally feel like I'm at the point where I feel 100 per cent comfortable to play,” Matthews said after the Leafs’ practice. “I feel good physically and everything, I just think I need a little bit more time. I'm dying to get in and play, but it's just one of those things that I've got to be patient with and be disciplined [with], and make sure that I'm feeling 100 per cent comfortable going in.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe said he doesn’t expect Matthews to be available for any of Toronto’s games this week, which includes Wednesday’s opener against Montreal and two tilts against Ottawa on Thursday and Saturday.
Matthews confirmed that playing this week is “probably out of the question,” although he did leave some leeway by noting, “a lot can change; you never know what can happen.”
What Matthews does know for sure is he doesn’t want to spend another season bothered by injury. The 24-year-old was troubled most of last year by a nagging wrist issue, and specifically chose to have surgery in August so he wouldn’t have to deal with it again.
Given all the work put in so far, Matthews is not about to derail his progress by jumping back too soon.
“Physically I feel great out there,” Matthews said. "In the last month or so I've been able to get in some really good work with [skills coach] Darryl [Belfry] and some of the other [coaches] and work on different parts of my game. I just don't feel like I'm where I want to be as far as my wrist goes right now. We're taking it day-by-day.”
Matthews’ ailing wrist cost him four games last season, but he still produced a 41-goal effort and won the first Rocket Richard Trophy of his career. So much of Matthews’ success comes from his lethal shot, and he’s proud of where that’s gotten back to post-surgery.
“I feel pretty good, I feel like I'm getting a little bit more speed and velocity on it,” he said. “I use a pretty whippy stick, I like to use a bit of downforce when I'm shooting. I feel like I'm more comfortable in that area and I'm not like shying away from shooting the puck like I want to.”
Having Matthews unavailable early on isn’t ideal for the Leafs, but from what Keefe sees in practice his best player won't be sidelined much longer.
“Our most important thing right now is to make sure he's 100 per cent comfortable,” Keefe said. “He went through a season last season where he was not playing at 100 per cent, and we'll make sure that we're patient enough to allow [a full recovery] to happen. I think he looks terrific out on the ice, and he shows the impact he's going to have when he does get in the lineup for us.”
Matthews isn’t the only injured forward Toronto is dealing with, either. Ilya Mikheyev is also set to miss at least eight weeks following surgery this week to repair a broken thumb.
Mikheyev got hurt in the Leafs’ final preseason showcase Saturday, when he was checked into the boards and fell to the ice awkwardly. His hand appeared to take the brunt of impact, and Mikheyev exited the game against Ottawa without returning.
It was another disappointing turn for Mikheyev, who had hoped the hard days were behind him.
Mikheyev originally signed with the Leafs out of the KHL in 2019, and was having a terrific rookie season (eight goals and 23 points in 39 games) when, in December 2019, an errant skate blade sliced into the tendons of his wrist.
That mishap also required surgery, and Mikheyev was rehabbing until March 2020. When he was finally set to return, the NHL shut down operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Mikheyev finally played again in Toronto’s series against Columbus during the league’s bubble playoff tournament, but turned in zero points through five games.
Last season wasn’t much better for Mikheyev, snake-bit as he was offensively and finishing with only seven goals and 17 points in 54 games. He, and the Leafs, had hoped this year would be a fresh start. But Mikheyev’s not letting this latest setback deter him.
“He was in here in the gym early doing his work [today] before most of the guys got in,” Keefe said. “I have no doubts [about him], just in terms of his work ethic, and the time that he puts in the gym, and on the ice. We'll miss him for sure when he's gone, but I know he'll work very hard to make sure he's ready.”
The Leafs suffered one more loss on Monday afternoon, in the form of Adam Brooks being claimed on waivers by Montreal.
Toronto took a surprising risk in placing Brooks on waivers to begin with. He’s been a versatile centre within the organization for four years, and has capably filled a bottom-six role in 18 NHL games to date (with four goals and eight points under his belt).
Ultimately, the Leafs decided forward Michael Amadio was the better player to keep.
Amadio joined the Leafs’ on a one-year, two-way contract last July as a big-bodied (6-foot-1, 204 pounds) forward to be shuffled throughout the lineup. He had previously appeared in 173 NHL games for the Los Angeles Kings and Ottawa Senators, tallying 16 goals and 40 points.
He was slotted onto Toronto’s fourth line with Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza during Monday’s practice, and Keefe has no regrets about how things are shaping up for the Leafs as Monday’s 5:00 p.m. ET deadline looms to submit opening night rosters.
“It was a tough decision [to waive Brooks], one frankly that I was not overly involved in,” Keefe said. “As a coaching staff, we believed in both players. We’ve got more history with Adam obviously and he was a big part of our team last season. But Mike Amadio at the same time has got significantly more experience in the league, and has also had a very good camp here so a decision had to be made and obviously was made and we'll see how the situation plays out.”