TORONTO – The Maple Leafs debuted new line combinations at practice on Friday as the team prepares for life without captain and top centre John Tavares, who will miss at least two weeks with a broken finger.
Head coach Mike Babcock has settled so far on sliding Alexander Kerfoot into Tavares’ vacated spot between Mitch Marner and Ilya Mikheyev and inserting Jason Spezza at third-line centre with Trevor Moore and Kasperi Kapanen.
Auston Matthews’ unit with Andreas Johnsson and William Nylander remained untouched, as did the Leafs’ fourth line of Dmytro Timashov, Nick Shore and Frederik Gauthier. Nylander was also in Tavares’ bumper spot on the Leafs’ top power-play unit.
“It’s an opportunity for guys,” Babcock said. “When you’re a good player you want to be the guy, and here’s an opportunity. As a team, we got to get better. I think we’re better than we’ve played. Now, everyone's getting an opportunity. We can always adjust the lineup if you’re really good and you play really well. We can find a way to get you on the ice more, so here's your opportunity.”
Babcock said the process of landing on this new-look lineup included a full day of debate among the Leafs’ staff, including assistant coaches Dave Hakstol and Paul McFarland. While they eventually arrived at this tentative setup ahead of facing the Boston Bruins on Saturday, there’s no decision that won’t be undone if necessary.
“We spent the full day [Thursday] on it,” admitted Babcock. “Of course I got everybody’s input. They all sent it to me and everyone had a different theory. And then we walked through all the options and why. Nothing is set in stone. We did the pre-scout on Boston, you say, ‘Okay, what are we going to do, how's it going to go?’ and try to give yourself the best opportunity. This is [the lineup] for warmups for sure.”
Tavares was originally hoping he wouldn’t have to miss any time at all. Tavares said his finger went “pretty numb” right after Morgan Rielly’s shot hit his hand late in the third period of Wednesday’s 4-3 loss at Washington, but the centre still managed to score a goal on his final shift.
The timing of his injury is particularly tough for Tavares, given how he'd begun turning a corner on the ice. After a slow offensive start to the season, with zero goals in his first four games, Tavares produced three goals and four points in his last four outings.
“Honestly, it didn't feel like it was too bad, even waking up yesterday,” Tavares said, his swollen right pointer finger on full display. “So I was a little surprised by the circumstances. I was really hopeful that it was something I was able to play with, but the medical staff just felt there has to be enough healing to make sure that it's stable.”
Tavares said he hadn’t broken a finger before, but did have surgery on his thumb a couple years ago and dealt with ligament damage to the area with a brace. While the initial timeline for Tavares’ return is a minimum of two weeks, he’s hoping for a quicker return.
“It's just very stiff,” he explained. “But I really didn’t try to move it or use it just so I can make sure that I can get better as soon as possible. It’s hard to even really say how painful it is, but certainly it's not as functional as it normally is. You have to be cautious on making sure I'm not putting myself at any risk to make it worse. So I feel disappointed, and it’s a little frustrating, but at the same time I know it could be worse.”
In the meantime, Kerfoot will step into his biggest role with the Leafs since arriving via trade from Colorado last July. The third-year centre has played all season with Mikheyev on his wing, and is confident their chemistry will translate well into a top-six position with Marner.
“I don't think anyone is going to replace JT, so I think you’ve got to do it as a collective group,” Kerfoot said. “I've been playing with Mikheyev since I’ve been here so that's going to be no different. Marns is one of the best players in the league, so when you get the opportunity to play with him you know there’s more responsibility and you have to do a good job.”
“Kerfoot is a way better player than we expected,” Babcock added. “He’s way grittier, and got more grease to him. We think he is going to make way more plays; he’s just got to continue to work on his defensive side so he has the puck more. But he's playing with good players and he’ll get a good opportunity.”
As the Leafs navigate their new reality, there’s no doubt it will be painful for Tavares to watch from the sidelines. But the team managed to weather an early season injury last year to Auston Matthews, going 9-5-0 through 14 games without him, so Tavares isn’t worried about the Leafs struggling now.
“I think the confidence is very high,” he said. “A lot of the group that was here last year, we dealt with some injuries to some key players and handled it well. We’ve had all four lines contribute so far, that’s been a real positive sign for us, and it’s huge to have that kind of depth that creates a great opportunity for someone else.”