TORONTO — Auston Matthews is back on the injured list.
The Maple Leafs’ centre will sit out Thursday’s game against Winnipeg with an undisclosed injury.
Coach Sheldon Keefe described Matthews as “day-to-day” and said the team doesn’t expect the issue to be a long-term problem. Matthews did make a brief appearance at the Leafs’ morning skate to "test something out" according to Keefe, but departed before the session began.
Matthews had previously missed three games this season with a hand/wrist injury, but Keefe said it’s a “similar, but not the same” issue sidelining him now. Despite those absences, Matthews still leads the NHL with 32 goals in 40 games.
The Leafs have managed also to have success without him this season, going 3-0-0 when Matthews isn't dressed, so there's plenty of confidence in Toronto that they can get by again.
“We have a lot of depth on our team,” said winger Zach Hyman. “It's just an opportunity for somebody to step up and fill a big role, obviously. It’ll be by committee because nobody can fill Auston's role [completely]. So, it's a big task for us against a great opponent that's chasing us and we'll be ready.”
Matthews’ absence does further strain the Leafs’ thinning offensive corps. Thursday will be the fifth game Toronto’s played without winger William Nylander, who remains in the NHL’s COVID protocols after coming in close contact with a potentially positive case of the virus last Wednesday.
Keefe said Toronto is waiting for one more negative test from Nylander before he’s eligible to rejoin the group on Friday.
But before that, the Leafs have to tangle with Winnipeg. The Jets, playing on the second half of a back-to-back, are highly motivated to start closing the five-point gap between them and the Leafs for top spot in the North Division.
Keefe reshuffled his lineup at Thursday’s morning skate. John Tavares will now centre the top line between Alex Galchenyuk and Mitch Marner, Alex Kerfoot moves to the second line with Zach Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev, and Pierre Engvall will be flanked by Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds on the third line.
Adam Brooks, in his second game of the season for Toronto, will centre Jason Spezza and Nick Robertson on the fourth line. Galchenyuk will also take over Matthews’ spot on Toronto’s top power-play unit.
The Leafs have been the NHL’s worst team on the power play since March 11, going 1-for-38 (2.6 per cent), and they were 0-for-4 with the extra man through two straight losses heading into Thursday night.
Now add losing Matthews (who leads the Leafs with nine power-play goals) into the mix and it’ll be a tall order for Toronto to get past the Jets.
“These games are going to be very important; they're going to be massive for final regular-season standings and how it all shakes out in the playoffs,” said defenceman Justin Holl. "It’s really coming down to the wire and I don't think I've ever seen anything like this before, but we got to be ready to go.”
Incredibly, Toronto could have been shorthanded even further for Thursday’s game. On Wednesday afternoon, Robertson was listed among the Leafs’ players unavailable due to the NHL’s COVID protocols. That was related to a positive test discovered within the Toronto Marlies organization on Wednesday, which forced the AHL team to shutter operations for at least the next week.
Robertson had been with the Marlies prior to being recalled by Toronto for Monday’s game, so he was also put into the protocols as a precautionary measure. The 19-year-old winger was removed after returning a negative test and was allowed to join the Leafs for their morning skate.
That was one of two positive developments on the day for Toronto. The other was injured goaltender Frederik Andersen getting back on the ice.
He’s been absent since re-aggravating a lower-body injury on March 19, and Toronto has been patient with his recovery. There’s reason now to think he’s started to turn a corner.
“The fact that he's back out here again today after skating previously is a good sign of making progress,” said Keefe. “I don't think he's close at this point to actually playing, but this is all part of the process. My understanding is he's going to come on the road with us, so that's very encouraging. It's really good to have him back out there.”