Don’t expect Maple Leafs’ Matthews back until next week at earliest

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There is some encouragement to be found in the sight of Auston Matthews on the ice at practice with his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates. But until they’re allowed to hit him, any talk of his return remains highly speculative.

Matthews needs to feel comfortable with contact before we see him in a game again.

There’s no reason to believe that will come any sooner than next week after Matthews donned the dreaded red sweater at Monday’s practice. The team skates again Tuesday, but likely won’t hold another full practice beyond that until after a three-games-in-four-days stretch against Dallas (Wednesday), Buffalo (Thursday) and Montreal (Saturday).

Once Matthews reaches the point where his healing shoulder is ready to be bumped, some of that work can be done in 1-on-1 sessions with the strength coach. But Mike Babcock has also made it clear that he’s looking for his top centre to be a fully engaged participant in contact drills at practice before his hopes get raised about a return.

That points to next Tuesday’s visit to Tampa as the earliest No. 34 might play, and even then, there’s an argument to be made about the wisdom in holding him out for road games against the Lightning and Nashville Predators on March 22.

It’s not like the Leafs are doing anything more than getting ready for Boston in Round 1 at this point. And sitting Matthews through the end of that mini-trip would give him four-plus weeks to heal and start building back strength in the shoulder.

His overall conditioning should be good since he’s been able to skate during the recovery period – unlike the absences he had for a concussion and back issue earlier in the season – but the 20-year-old will likely have to wear a shoulder harness and deal with some degree of discomfort even after he’s medically cleared to play.

It could make this the toughest of those three ailments to work through, especially with the physicality due to be dialled up for the playoffs.

Something worth keep an eye on with the Matthews situation is the status of a potential $2-million “Schedule B” performance bonus. While there’s no reason to believe it will have any bearing on the decision-making around a return from either the club or player’s perspective, it could have ramifications for both if Matthews struggles after he’s activated from injured reserve.

He needs to finish among the NHL’s top-10 forwards in goals per game to cash in for a second straight year, and currently sits in position to do so with 28 in 53. However, were he to return next week and, say, score twice over the final 10 regular-season games, it could drop him outside the money window.

Matthews is already assured of maxing out his $850,000 “Schedule A” bonus – Mitch Marner and William Nylander should both do the same – which means the Leafs will once again carry an overage into next season.

In an ideal world, they’ll get a healthy and productive Matthews back for the stretch run and see their cap carryover top out at $4.55 million – money well spent for the best odds at beating the Bruins in April.

However, if the big centre’s production dips while working his way back from the shoulder injury, the Leafs could be left with more cap room entering 2018-19.

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When looking to motivate, a coach can either use the carrot or the stick. Babcock has never been shy about giving William Nylander the stick.

So it was interesting to hear him sound an optimistic tone when asked how the Swede had adapted to playing centre since Matthews was injured – a stretch where he’s put up four assists in six games, and saw a healthy dose of the red-hot Evgeni Malkin in Saturday’s win over Pittsburgh.

“I don’t think Willy’s off it at all,” Babcock told reporters Monday. “Actually, I think he’s playing really well.”

Where Nylander plays long term is as a fundamental question for an organization that is deep on wingers, but only has Matthews and Nazem Kadri currently signed as centre options for next season.

The fact Babcock has seen some growth is worth noting. His forward lines are going to look a lot different next fall than they do this spring.

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The Leafs entered play Monday with the NHL’s sixth-best points percentage at .630. Their reward? An almost certain first-round matchup with Boston, which owned the league’s third-best mark at .701 – behind only Tampa (.725) and Nashville (.721).

It’s almost the exact same scenario that played out last year in the Metropolitan Division, when Columbus went on the road to face Pittsburgh in Round 1 despite a franchise-best 108-point season.

The divisional playoff format may not be a hot-button issue among teams just yet, but if this keeps happening, it won’t be too long before it is.

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