TORONTO — No Auston Matthews. No Ilya Mikheyev. And now, no Mitch Marner?
That’s the burning question the Maple Leafs face ahead of their season opener on Wednesday against Montreal. Toronto had already ruled out Matthews (wrist) and Mikheyev (thumb), and now Marner’s status is up in the air after he left Tuesday’s practice early following a collision with Wayne Simmonds.
“He had a bit of a glancing blow there with Simmer on the ice,” said coach Sheldon Keefe. “It’s just precautionary [that we removed him] at this point in time. We'll evaluate him in the morning and take it from there.”
The hit from Simmonds was hard enough that Marner stayed down for a minute before skating gingerly back to the bench. He participated in a couple more line drills after that, and then engaged in a lengthy conversation with trainer Jon Geller.
From there, Marner went and spoke to Keefe directly before retiring to the dressing room, tailed by Geller.
While it’s rarely positive to see a player exit practice early, at least one of Marner’s teammates didn’t see reason to worry.
“I’m not really concerned. I think it was just precautionary; he probably wanted a rest,” joked Jason Spezza. “I think it'll be fine. I haven't talked to him, so maybe I shouldn't make light of it, but it seemed like it was a pretty minor thing.”
Marner would undoubtedly have preferred to finish the day’s work, given how he’s trying to work in a new (albeit familiar) centre. After Matthews told the Leafs he’s not ready to play after off-season wrist surgery, Keefe moved John Tavares into Matthews’ top-line spot between Marner and Nick Ritchie at Monday’s practice.
Keefe cycled several players into that spot throughout training camp, including David Kampf and Adam Brooks. They were each meant to just be placeholders for Matthews, who had been plotting his return in Toronto’s opener.
But as Matthews detailed on Monday, he still isn’t 100 per cent confident in coming back. So, Tavares was shuffled into the top-line slot and projects to stay there until Matthews is healthy.
“Nothing really changes for me, I just play my game,” Tavares said of filling in. “We’ve been through it before where Auston's missed games in the past and been through similar circumstances. So, I understand my role and my responsibility, and I’ll go out there and play at high level.”
The Leafs will have to wait and see now if more juggling up front is needed before puck drop on Wednesday. When it came to picking a goaltender though, there was zero anxiety for Keefe.
From day one of camp, that opening day job was Jack Campbell’s to lose. The 29-year old is coming off the best season of his career last year in replacing Frederik Andersen as Toronto’s starter, going 17-3-2 with a .921 save percentage. Campbell has never been tapped as a team’s starter from the outset of a season, but he stayed ahead of free agent signee Petr Mrazek to put himself in that position now.
"It wasn't even a question of who was going to start this game, all [through] the off-season, all through camp,” said Keefe of Campbell. “And he has never given us a reason to think anything different. It's a great accomplishment for him. He's been through a lot. He’s worked extremely hard; he's had to continue to believe in himself and deal with adversity. He's earned the confidence of our organization here and been terrific all through camp.”
The always-affable Campbell said goalie coach Steve Briere called him with news of his impending start, and he hadn’t told anyone about it. After all, Campbell expected to be the go-guy for Toronto. And seeing as this is a contract year for the netminder, he’s got a lot invested in being successful.
"It feels good to put the work in and get rewarded for the hard work but it's just one step,” Campbell said. “I always expected to be in this position, I just didn't perform enough [in the past] to be able to. So, now I just expect myself to bring my best game every time I'm in the net.”
It’s also somehow fitting for the Leafs that they begin this year against the same team that ended their playoff run in May. Montreal fought back from a 3-1 first-round playoff series hole against Toronto in the spring to send the Leafs home in another disappointing fashion.
There’s nothing to be done about that failure now. But whoever is in the Leafs’ lineup on Wednesday better be prepared to show what they’ve learned from past adversity.
“We believe in the good things that we did last year,” said Keefe. “And we need to continue with that, but it obviously needs to get to an even higher level. Because we're seeking the ultimate goal here, which is to put together a program that sustains itself in difficult times. I feel really good about what we've done to this point here through preseason, and then now with regular season starting, we’re going to have to put that to the test.”