TORONTO – Mike Babcock has a saying that doesn’t bode well if you’re fan of Auston Matthews: "When they say it’s day-to-day, it’s usually 10."
The Toronto Maple Leafs coach didn’t dust off that well-worn line while pronouncing his star centre out for Wednesday’s game against the Minnesota Wild, but you know he had to be thinking it in the back of his mind.
Matthews, after all, is officially listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
However, it would not be the least bit surprising if he had to miss one or both of the Friday/Saturday home-and-home series with the Boston Bruins as well. That will be determined based on how he responds to treatment in the days ahead.
Beyond this weekend, the Leafs don’t play again until next Thursday when they host New Jersey – leaving open the possibility of giving Matthews nine days of rest and recovery while only having him sit out three games.
In the short term, it poses an interesting challenge for a Toronto team that hasn’t had to play without him at all since drafting him No. 1 in 2016.
"No one is moving into his spot, someone is going to play there," Babcock said Wednesday. "I just think it’s time for us to dig in. It’s simple. I don’t think you can race to 10 [goals] without him and so we’ve got to play right without the puck. And, if you play right – we’ve been talking and working on this for a long time, the results don’t always show it, but that’s what we’ve been trying to talk about and, growing up as a team, here’s a real good opportunity for us."
Matthews came back from last week’s four-game road trip at something less than 100 per cent. He says a lingering issue was re-aggravated during Saturday’s loss in St. Louis.
The 20-year-old then played a season-high 21:11 against Vegas on Monday and hasn’t skated since.
The only hint from his past about what might be going on here is found in his 2015-16 season with Switzerland’s Zurich Lions, where Matthews missed six games with a back ailment. He dressed in all 82 games, plus six more in the playoffs, for the Leafs last year.
The organization employs a sports science department that is given a say in lineup decisions. For example, they had James van Riemsdyk and Matt Martin kept out of an Oct. 28 game vs. Philadelphia for maintenance.
"Sometimes you get bumped or you get hacked or things happen," said Babcock. "The other thing we did earlier is we sat out [Martin] and [van Riemsdyk] one time. You’ve got to try to use your head the best you can.
"That’s why we’ve got other people than me, everyone would play every night if I was in charge of that."
The plan for Wednesday was to shift Patrick Marleau back to centre, with Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and Dominic Moore filling the other spots down the middle. Babcock says he’ll chase matchups against the Wild based on whether the faceoff is in the offensive or defensive zone.
The Leafs have seen their numbers drop considerably this season when Matthews is off the ice. They’ve outscored opponents 18-5 at even strength when he plays and are down 36-24 when he doesn’t. Toronto’s shot volume, possession and scoring chances all spike when No. 34 is out there.
"He’s a guy we can play against anybody," added Babcock. "He’s playing against the best ‘D’ and the best forwards on the road and he’s playing against the best ‘D’ and the second-best forwards at home. I think that speaks to it right there. When you play well defensively, you have the puck all the time.
"He’s real good at it and understands it and has a good read on the game that way and learned it quick. Elite hockey sense."