TORONTO — It began as a season where everything seemed possible for Auston Matthews. A chase for 50 goals, a run at the NHL’s scoring title, an offensive explosion that cemented his place among the game’s absolute best.
Conquests all halted by a left shoulder injury that will keep him out of the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup for at least four weeks, but probably more.
“It sucks,” said Matthews.
This is an all-too-familiar process for a 21-year-old producing greatness when he’s not on the training table. Since the start of last season, Matthews has 44 goals and 79 points in 73 games — putting him on pace for 49 goals and 89 points when adjusted for a full year.
Through a small sample this season he was clicking along at an eye-popping 75-goal, 119-point pace until driving towards the Winnipeg Jets net on Saturday night and taking a jarring bodycheck from defenceman Jacob Trouba.
“I knew the guy was coming. [I was] trying to get a shot off, but you don’t really know what to expect because you’re so close to the goalie,” Matthews explained Monday, before the Leafs faced the Calgary Flames. “He took body, which is what you’re supposed to do, and just caught me on a weird angle.”
Matthews immediately knew something was wrong.
He missed 10 games last season with a second-degree shoulder separation on the right side and this time a familiar pain shot through the left. If there’s good news to be found here, it’s that Matthews says the damage doesn’t require surgery. That would have sidelined him for multiple months.
Still, there’s a level of unpredictability about how long it will take the ligaments to heal and tighten and there’s no guarantee he’ll feel completely comfortable with his shoulder when he returns.
Matthews has dealt with more than his share of injuries in the last year. In addition to the two shoulder problems, he’s missed time with a concussion and back issue.
“He did a ton of work this summer on his shoulder to make sure he was a stronger. These things happen,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “You know, it’s too bad for the kid.”
All is not lost, obviously.
The Leafs are 8-3-0 and should be able to maintain their playoff positioning even without Matthews and William Nylander, who remains in Sweden because of a contract impasse.
There should be plenty of runway left on the season when Matthews is healthy again, which means there’ll be time to get back up to speed and help the Leafs in their push for the Stanley Cup.
However, you can’t totally ignore the fact Matthews had appeared to take another step in his third NHL season, only to see everything placed on hold once again.
“It’s a challenge because you want to be out there so bad. It sucks,” he said. “I think watching the game is probably the worst part. (Not) being around your teammates, being a part of something, I think that’s kind of the hardest thing, but we have such an unbelievable group of guys and everybody makes you feel part of it regardless if you’re injured or scratched or whatever.
“That part will be fine.”
Without him, John Tavares and Nazem Kadri will each see their minutes bumped. Par Lindholm becomes the third-line centre while Frederik Gauthier continues to anchor the fourth. There is increased opportunity for winger Kasperi Kapanen, who takes Matthews’ spot on the top power-play unit, and Andreas Johnsson, who has been freed from the press box.
“I’ve never met one guy in hockey that says ‘Coach, can I play less?’ They always want more opportunity,” said Babcock. “And someone always thinks they’re getting the short end of the stick. No one’s getting the short end of the stick [now] — we’ve only got 12 forwards, show me.”
The veteran coach sat down with Matthews on Monday morning and tried to get him in the right frame of mind. He pointed out that a shoulder issue should allow Matthews to maintain or even improve his conditioning.
He also encouraged him to spend as much time around his teammates as possible.
“It’s one thing if you’ve got a family and you can go home to that family,” said Babcock. “When you’re living by yourself in Toronto you don’t want to be hanging out by yourself. You want to be with the guys.”
Besides offering support and companionship, the best thing the Leafs can do for Matthews is keep winning. He’s no longer in the mix for any personal hardware this season, but there’s still a larger prize for the team to chase once he’s back in the lineup.
“I don’t think it falls on the shoulders of one specific player,” said Kadri. “Collectively as a group everybody can do a little bit more. We have the depth to temporarily fix the situation. Obviously [Matthews] is a player that you can’t replace, but we’ll hold the fort until he gets back.”