CHICAGO — Mike Babcock doesn’t know how long he’ll be without his best winger.
All the Toronto Maple Leafs coach could say before Sunday’s visit to United Center is that Mitch Marner had an MRI on his injured right ankle. The results were still pending two hours before puck drop against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I texted him a bunch of times today and he said it was a little stiff,” said Babcock.
Marner left Saturday’s game against Philadelphia after getting tied up with Flyers forward Carsen Twarynski off a faceoff. Marner stepped on Twarynski’s stick and when he fell to the ice his right leg bent in an unnatural fashion beneath him.
He twice tried to return before getting pulled from the game by trainers and didn’t travel to Chicago with his teammates.
Sunday marks the first time the Leafs play a game without Marner since February 2017.
“Mitch is a big part of our group in many ways,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly. “He’s on the power play, he’s on the penalty kill, he’s a big part of that line [with John Tavares], obviously. I think if you look at the depth chart in all areas of the game, he’s up there.
The Leafs have yet to play with a full lineup this season. Marner’s injury comes just as Zach Hyman is preparing to make his return from off-season surgery to repair the ACL in his right knee. Toronto also played 13 games without Travis Dermott (shoulder) and seven games without Tavares (broken finger).
“I think the injuries will help us improve our team,” said Babcock. “Guys are playing a lot more, in a lot more situations than they would. Obviously [Hyman is] a big piece, Tavares out is a big piece, so now Mitch is a big piece.
“So guys get opportunity and when you make good on it, you earn confidence and you get to be a better player. So a good opportunity for us that way.”
Still, if it’s a long-term absence for Marner, it’ll be felt.
The 22-year-old is an offensive dynamo who sits second on the team in points (18) and first in assists (14). He also leads the Leafs in slot pass completions (41) and zone exits (154), according to Sportlogiq.
“I thought our best line last year was Tavares, Hyman and Marner — they haven’t played together this year,” said Babcock. “They’ll play together at some point.
“I don’t know what the scoop is on Mitch at all, so I’m not going to try to pretend I do.”