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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO – It’s not often this season the Maple Leafs have had a practice like the one on Monday, with a full complement of players and nary a red no-contact sweater in sight for the recently injured John Tavares, Jake Muzzin or Zach Hyman.

It was an exciting prospect for head coach Mike Babcock, who delayed his post-practice media availability to convene with Tavares at his dressing stall to find out how close Toronto’s captain is to returning from a broken finger.

“[I asked], ‘Is he playing tomorrow or not?’” Babcock revealed of their brief meeting. “He’s basically feeling good, but still has to get cleared by the medical people. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re medically cleared or not. You’ve got to feel good enough to play, and so that's what we were just discussing there, just so I have some answers.”​

Babcock then joked he doesn’t actually have any of the answers he needs, except perhaps when it comes to Muzzin’s less uncertain status.

The Leafs’ defenceman had been injured by a first-period hit from Tom Wilson in last Tuesday’s loss to the Washington Capitals, and sat out the second and third frames of that game with a charley horse. He went on to miss Saturday’s 4-3 shootout win in Philadelphia as well, but the Leafs attributed that to “personal reasons” and not his leg.

Muzzin said he’ll be “good to go,” as Toronto prepares to welcome in the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, which sets him up for what could be a more emotional outing that usual.

Muzzin started his career with the Kings, signing there as a free agent in 2010 and hoisting the Stanley Cup as part of its championship roster in 2014. The Leafs traded a 2019 first-round draft choice and two prospects to Los Angeles to acquire Muzzin last January, and Tuesday will be the first time he’s faced his former team.

“It'll be different,” Muzzin conceded. “I’ve never [played a former team]. Last year we didn’t meet up after the trade, so that’ll be fun out there seeing some of the guys I played with for a long time.”

After missing the Leafs’ last seven games, Tavares is eyeing his own return against L.A. The centre had his finger broken by a shot from Morgan Rielly on Oct. 22, and had anticipated being able to get back on Saturday.

Ultimately, the Leafs’ medical staff suggested Tavares would be better served taking a few more days to fully heal the appendage before subjecting it to game action. Toronto’s victory over Philadelphia puts them at 3-2-2 now without Tavares available.

“We made a really good call on Saturday to be patient,” Tavares said. “And I think there's a good chance it sets me up for tomorrow and the rest this week. I’m still going to talk to the medical staff after today, but I feel pretty good. We'll just cover our bases and hopefully that's the case [that I can play].”

At this stage, Tavares said the mobility in his finger is great, and the strength he’s been lacking is finally catching up.

“Doing the manual tests that we do on a daily basis, that’s getting pretty close back to normal,” he said. “The last couple days it took a big jump and I was happy to see that and just the way I felt on the ice today as well [was good].”

If Muzzin is a definite for Tuesday’s game and Tavares is a strong possibility, Hyman is a definite scratch, but still closer than ever to making his season debut.

It’s been seven months since Hyman last played in a game, not learning until after the Leafs’ Game 7 loss in the first round of the playoffs that he’d need off-season ACL surgery.

Babcock estimated in September Hyman would miss the Leafs’ first 14-15 games, but he’s already been out for 16, a challenging reality for the feisty forechecker.

“I always have a date in mind [to return]; it's the next game,” Hyman joked. “But it's a process and you have to respect it. I've gone through so much work to get to this point right now.”

By now, Hyman doesn’t feel like his body is far from being game-ready.

“I can tell you I’m pretty close,” he said. “I feel strong, but it’s not like you magically get better one day. You get to the point where you feel good and strong and stable and you feel like you can play. And we’re really close to that point.”

Hyman finally getting the all-clear will be a boost for Toronto on the ice, but taking the winger off long-term injured reserve will also necessitate some roster moves to accommodate his $2.25 million cap hit. CapFriendly puts Toronto’s available cap space at zero before activating Hyman, so the Leafs project to only be able to carry 20 players once Hyman is back in the fold. That will most likely put Jason Spezza, Dmytro Timashov and Martin Marincin on the roster bubble. 

For today though, Babcock is focused only on the positives in Hyman’s recovery.

“I think he’s [close] too. He used to have a hitch, a while ago,” the coach said. “He's a top-line player for us, very important player. I don't know how long it's going to take him once he’s back to get to that form, but with his drivetrain and his work ethic it'll be quicker than some guys.”