TORONTO – This is the week, Mike Babcock assumes, the Toronto Maple Leafs will welcome not one but two of their young star forwards back in the fold.
Well, in the immortal words of Jon Bon Jovi, we’re halfway there.
After a 14-game absence, centre Auston Matthews has been medically cleared to make his return to the lineup Wednesday versus the San Jose Sharks — even if Babcock is still debating whom to place on his wings.
“That’s a good question. I’ve got until game time to figure it out, I’ve gone back and forth about 10 times already,” Babcock said Wednesday morning.
When Matthews went down with his left shoulder injury, he’d already scored 10 goals in 10-and-a-half games and had been centring Kasperi Kapanen and Patrick Marleau. The coach has no plans to curtail his franchise player’s ice time.
“When you come back off an injury where you’re injured in your shoulder and you can skate the whole time, it’s way easier,” Babcock said. “When you come back off – he had a head injury one time and a back injury another time and couldn’t skate — it takes you a long time and sometimes you don’t even get it back.”
Despite the growing concern surrounding William Nylander, the restricted free agent who is taking his contract negotiations down to the wire, Babcock has been persistent in preaching optimism. If still unsigned by 5 p.m. ET Saturday, the player will be ineligible to participate in the 2018-19 season.
“I’ve got no reason to think anything. I just believe Willy likes it here,” Babcock said.
“We love him here, and he’s a big part of it. So, we think he’ll be back, and we think he’ll be up and running in a couple of weeks. We’re going to play him when he gets back.”
The financial gap between Nylander and the Maple Leafs is reportedly in the ballpark of $300,000 per season.
Nylander was recorded by HockeyNews.se wearing his Leafs helmet and practising in Stockholm with the AIK U20 club in a video published Wednesday.
I spoke with him briefly after practice. He told me he won’t answer any questions about the contract situation. Although he did confirm this was his last time skating with AIK.
— Andreas Käck (@andreaskack) November 28, 2018
“We hope to get him back, of course. He’s a big part of this team,” Matthews said.
“The clock’s kinda tickin’. So hopefully that gets resolved because everybody wants him here. Us as players and knowing him, he obviously wants to be here too.”
Without Nylander, Toronto has leapt to a 17-8 start and owns the best goal differential in the league (+24). Without Matthews for a month, the Leafs have gone 9-5.
“To add him to the ongoing success we’ve had, it’s just more exciting,” Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott said. “He’s going to jump right on the train and keep things rolling for us.”
Matthews scored in each of his three return-from-injury games last season. He says he wants to play a simple game and not get too fancy, especially in the first period.
“Games are faster and more intense than practices can ever be,” Matthews said, “so it’ll be a bit of an adjustment for me.”
The Maple Leafs will start Frederik Andersen, while Matthews’ return bumps centre Frederik Gauthier out of the lineup…. The Sharks’ starting goalie, Martin Jones or Aaron Dell, will be a game-time decision. Jones made 28 saves in Tuesday’s overtime loss to Buffalo…. The Philadelphia Flyers placed ex-Leafs goalie Calvin Pickard on waivers Wednesday. Expect Toronto to put in a claim in hopes to boost the AHL Marlies’ goaltending depth…. Matthews on pal Mitch Marner’s offensive outburst during his absence: “It seems like every night he gets you on the edge of your seat, even watching as a player… He’s been dominant.”