TORONTO — Mike Babcock insists he hasn’t drawn up line combinations that include Auston Matthews back in his lineup. He even ran a Tuesday practice that didn’t feature line rushes despite it likely being the final test run before Matthews returns from his left shoulder injury.
“When he’s available I’m sure we’ll find him some linemates,” Babcock said afterwards, with a nod to the fact No. 34 hadn’t officially been cleared by the medical staff.
But Matthews did pronounce himself fit to return for Wednesday’s meeting with San Jose — a game that would be the first for the Toronto Maple Leafs top centre since he took a jarring, open-ice hit from Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba on Oct. 27.
“I’ve been bored to death this last month,” Matthews said. “I think I’m just going to be excited to be back with the team and obviously getting a game tomorrow. Do what we always do, just play hockey. I’m definitely excited.”
The Leafs have put together a pretty thrilling start even with him and the unsigned William Nylander on the sidelines — their 17 wins through 25 games are the second-most in franchise history, one behind the 1934-35 team — but we won’t have a true sense of how good they might be until the entire band is together.
Whether Matthews returns on Wednesday or not, the job for San Jose coach Peter DeBoer will certainly be more challenging than the one he faced in their Nov. 15 meeting with the Leafs at the Shark Tank. Not only will his team be playing the second half of a back-to-back this time around, but he won’t have last change while facing a Toronto team featuring difference-makers on the top three forward lines.
In the 5-3 loss to the Leafs earlier this month, DeBoer matched Logan Couture’s trio with John Tavares, Melker Karlsson’s with Nazem Kadri and Joe Thornton’s with Par Lindholm. The Sharks only enjoyed a mismatch in the minutes against the Lindholm line, but he’ll be pushed back to 4C when Matthews returns.
(At least San Jose will be able to roll out top-end defencemen on each pairing with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Erik Karlsson, and Brent Burns playing separately. That isn’t a luxury too many Leafs opponents will have at the ready.)
The larger point here is just how much better the Leafs will be with Matthews driving one line while Tavares continues to do his thing with Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman. Tavares has 15 goals in 25 games, Marner is tied with Connor McDavid for third in NHL scoring with 33 points entering Tuesday’s play, and Matthews scored 10 goals in 10 and a half games before getting hurt.
History even tells us that it’s not unreasonable to expect he will return in high gear. Last season, he scored in his first game back all three times he returned from injury — including after a month-long absence for a right shoulder injury in March.
“He’s worked hard and had the opportunity to work hard this time, which I think is really beneficial to him,” Babcock said. “There’s always that initial energy and then the grind starts, but he’s a real good player and he can help us.”
Matthews approached this recovery differently than those that came before it by travelling with the team for the last couple weeks. That’s allowed him to put in all kinds of extra work after practices and morning skates.
Seeing him slumped over, gasping for air, has been a common occurrence in empty buildings around the league of late — the result of punishing drills run by the assistant coaches for Matthews and the team’s healthy scratches.
“You just put in all the work you can when you’re injured to stay in shape,” Matthews said. “I expect [conditioning] should be fine, I’ve been skating a lot the last couple weeks. It’s going to be nice to throw the bag skates out the door and just get back into actually playing hockey and that kind of fun stuff.”
One silver lining has been seeing the team play well in his absence. Toronto went 9-5-0 without Matthews — it also came back to win the Oct. 27 game against the Jets after he left in the second period — and appears capable of challenging for the Atlantic Division title, if not the Presidents’ Trophy.
Assuming Matthews is reunited with Patrick Marleau and Kasperi Kapanen, at least until Nylander returns, the third line would likely see Kadri between Andreas Johnsson and Connor Brown. That leaves Lindholm, Tyler Ennis and Josh Leivo on the fourth line.
It’s a roster with scoring options everywhere.
“Obviously we have good players and it’s never about one player,” Babcock said. “It’s about the team and how we go about doing our business.”
Fair enough, but adding Matthews is like dropping a cinderblock on one side of a weighted scale. It tilts the equation decidedly in Toronto’s favour. He leads the entire league in goals per 60 since entering the NHL, and has averaged .54 scored for every regular-season game he’s played for the Leafs.
He also doesn’t seem to have any reservations about jumping back into the fire. The 21-year-old initially struggled to regain the pop on his most dangerous weapon — his shot — but says now that the accuracy has returned.
“I feel good. I took some bumps today, I guess, and just kind of initiating contact and going into the corners and stuff and spinning off of guys,” Matthews said.
“To me, that all felt good. But the real test is a game but as far as it goes doing contact stuff over the past week everything’s felt solid and fine. I think the goal is to not get crunched like I did when the injury happened, to kind of see stuff coming.”