Maple Leafs relying on sports science to determine Matthews’ status

Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews addresses the media after practicing with his teammates for the first time since the injury, says he’s still not sure if he’ll be in Thursday’s lineup.

TORONTO – The first person who greeted Auston Matthews when he came off the ice from Wednesday’s practice wasn’t a trainer or public-relations staffer.

It was Dr. Jeremy Bettle, the Toronto Maple Leafs director of sports science and performance, and he went straight for No. 34’s shoulder pads.

The Catapult GPS tracker Matthews wore for the 40-minute skate arguably contained the most important information about whether he’ll be cleared to return to the Leafs lineup on Thursday night after missing three games with an undisclosed upper-body injury.

You’d probably have better luck getting the nuclear codes than having a member of the organization disclose exactly how that information is applied, but it’s become clear that the Leafs are among a growing number of NHL teams leaning heavily on biometrics in their decision-making.

“Good to have Matty on the ice today,” said coach Mike Babcock. “I don’t know if he’s playing tomorrow [against New Jersey], to be honest with you. We’ll see tomorrow morning at the skate. We’ll see how he handled it and all those things. The medical guys will tell me what’s going on there, then we’ll make our lineup accordingly.”

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There’s been a distinct change in tone since Babcock’s first season behind the Leafs bench. Where once he seemed almost skeptical of the sports science department – repeatedly referencing the “science project” when asked about the status of an injured player – he’s now largely deferential to their role within the organization.

It has been most apparent during the Matthews injury situation because it’s believed the star centre’s absence is more about maintenance than anything else. A judgment call, in other words, and almost certainly not the call a coach who ascribes to “Saskatchewan science” would be inclined to make if it were solely up to him.

Matthews last played in a shootout win over Vegas on Nov. 6 and participated in light skating workouts on Monday and Tuesday. After rejoining the Leafs for practice on Wednesday, he noted that he’d been operating under “restrictions” placed upon him by the sports science staff.

“I feel a lot better,” said Matthews. “It definitely has progressed over the week and just gotten better day by day. You know, I’ve just been working with the medical team doing everything I can to get back as soon as I can, and back to feeling close to 100 per cent.”

Clearly, he’d like to play against the Devils. Babcock certainly wouldn’t have trouble finding a spot for him in the lineup – he put Matthews back between William Nylander and Zach Hyman in line rushes and had him participate in power-play drills during Wednesday’s practice.

In years gone by, that might have been enough to ensure a player’s return.

Now there’s at least one other factor being weighed in the conversation and, by Matthews’ own admission, he wasn’t completely himself in his first full practice back with the team. You’d have to think that showed up in the GPS data gathered by Bettle.

“I haven’t skated in a week, so it’s almost like you’ve forgot how to stickhandle the puck and stuff,” said Matthews.

“I saw it today,” added Babcock. “I mean he’s fine, but he wasn’t like he normally is. Just the power and explosiveness and the fitness. It’s amazing, anybody who knows – you get too many days off from hockey and it takes you awhile to get ‘er back. That’s the way it is.”

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As a result, it wouldn’t be a complete surprise if the Leafs elected to give him a few more days to get back up to speed.

We are still only at game No. 20 of what the organization hopes is a long season, and these decisions are being made with the big-picture in mind. As others have found out, the player’s voice isn’t heard too loudly behind the scenes.

“It’s not that much of a conversation,” winger Matt Martin said last week, when asked about sitting out a game in October for maintenance. “It’s usually, ‘You’re not playing,’ and you try to say something and it doesn’t change their mind and you just get over it.”

Bettle is now in his third season with the Leafs after being hired in June 2015 while Kyle Dubas served as interim GM. His tenure here has completely overlapped that of Babcock’s and – by coincidence or not – Toronto is among the healthiest teams in hockey over the last 15 months.

Matthews says he would have been playing if the Leafs were currently in a playoff series.

But after feeling a “little restriction” in the game against the Golden Knights, he understood why the team wanted him to back off.

“It’s early in the year, too, and you don’t want for it to not fully recover,” he said. “And then you tweak it again and you’re back to square one. So I think we’ve just kind of been pretty cautious.”

It ended up making for a long week.

He did rehab work and attended the wins over Minnesota and Boston at Air Canada Centre, but had to watch from home on Saturday night when the Leafs completed a home-and-home sweep of the Bruins at TD Garden.

“It’s always frustrating to miss games,” said Matthews. “Just watching sucks, obviously, you want to be out there and you want to help contribute and do all that stuff. But I think at the end of the day your health is pretty important.”

On that point, he and the organization are clearly aligned.