TORONTO — The Maple Leafs will be without Auston Matthews for Friday’s game against Edmonton as he battles “upper-body soreness,” but head coach Sheldon Keefe is optimistic the star centre won’t be sidelined for long.
“It’s going to be a day-to-day situation. I’m not too concerned,” Keefe told reporters on a Zoom call Friday following the team’s optional morning skate. “There was a possibility that he would play today but he just still wasn't feeling right in that sense, so we're going to give it a little bit more time.”
Also depleting the Leafs’ offensive depth on Friday will be the absence of veteran Joe Thornton. Keefe confirmed Thornton suffered a rib fracture in a collision with Josh Archibald during Wednesday’s 3-1 loss to Edmonton and will be out for at least a month.
That leaves two-thirds of Toronto’s top line out of commission, so Keefe will go back to a 12-forward, six-defencemen lineup against the Oilers on Friday after using an 11/seven look for the team’s past two outings. Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks and Alex Barabanov will all slot in – Engvall and Brooks for the first time this season – but Keefe wouldn’t reveal how exactly his lines would shake out.
What matters most to Keefe is that the Leafs bounce back from Wednesday’s disappointing offensive performance by playing at a higher overall pace, regardless of who’s skating where.
“We need to get more offence at 5-on-5. So no matter who's in the lineup, no matter what the lines are, we got to find a way to get to the net a lot more,” Keefe said. “It's been an issue for us, not just last game, but an issue for us [generally]. We got to find ways to get to that [area] more consistently, so that's [John Tavares], [William Nylander], Mitch [Marner], [Zach] Hyman all these guys, and all the way through the lineup. Guys have got to do a better job of helping us get there.”
Matthews was the Leafs' best player in Wednesday’s loss, scoring Toronto’s only goal and pacing both teams with six shots on net in more than 24 minutes of ice time. He and Marner were primarily matched up against Edmonton’s top line that night, and they helped hold Connor McDavid to just one assist.
Whatever ailment Matthews dealt with afterwards, he was only able to make a brief appearance at practice on Thursday before making a quick exit. Matthews has missed time throughout his career with upper-body and back issues, so the Leafs are familiar with how to forge ahead without him.
“Everyone has to find ways to elevate,” said Tavares. “You can't replace anyone in the lineup. I think everyone brings their own skill set and what makes them who they are as a player and why they're in this position. So I think we just have to elevate our game and find another level when everyone's executing at a high rate and making as big of an impact as you can. We're doing that as a group through our structure.”
Thornton also leaves a major hole for the Leafs to plug. He’d played mostly on a line with Matthews and Marner early on, averaging more than 15 minutes per game and appearing on the team’s top power-play unit. Keefe said Thornton is still a big presence in the dressing room despite being hurt, pointing to the impact his “life, energy and smile,” continue to have. But no amount of sunny disposition will make up for what Toronto is losing on the ice with Thornton and Matthews out.
“We're going to miss having [them],” said Tavares. “Injuries and adversity come in different forms at different times throughout the year and, as a group, we have to handle it extremely well. We have to find ways to elevate as a team and individually, and guys who are looking for more opportunity, it’s a great chance for them [to get that].”
And Toronto has plenty of things to choose from by way of improvement over Wednesday. It was Matthews who noted the Leafs didn’t attack Edmonton enough in their first meeting, focusing too much on slowing down McDavid and Leon Draisaitl instead of dictating play. Having seen how easy it is to be too careful with the Oilers, the Leafs are determined to be more in control come Friday, while still containing Edmonton’s top stars.
“[It’s more about] playing our game, making sure that we're pushing the pace, not reacting to them and coming out with full confidence,” said defenceman Travis Dermott. “A couple guys are getting some different shots here [in the lineup], so those guys hopefully are pushing the pace a little bit, making sure everyone's on their toes and ready to go and firing [ourselves], instead of reacting to [the Oilers].”