COLUMBUS, Ohio — Perhaps it was the sight of Auston Matthews scoring nice goals in a 3-on-3 shinny game with his teammates, or the promise of a Thanksgiving feast still to come.
But there was a buoyancy around the Toronto Maple Leafs as they sailed past an unofficial line of demarcation on the NHL calendar Thursday with a 15-7-0 record and some apparent sunshine on the horizon.
“Obviously ecstatic,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock, when asked how he views this opening stretch of the season. “Any way you look at it we’ve got off to a good start. We think our team’s going to be better, we have significant pieces not here and they will be here. So we’ll be a deeper team.”
Now, it’s tempting to want to take his quote literally.
Matthews is a significant piece and we know he’s inching closer to a return from his left shoulder injury. But Babcock answered the question in the plural, which would appear to point to William Nylander’s impending arrival as well.
Negotiations are at a sensitive stage with a Dec. 1 deadline looming for Nylander to sign and be eligible to return to the NHL this season. General manager Kyle Dubas is accompanying the team on this road trip, as are both of his lieutenants: Brandon Pridham and Laurence Gilman.
In the wake of Wednesday’s 5-2 loss in Carolina — a game where they gave up 29 shots to the Hurricanes in the first period alone — the Leafs held an up-tempo practice at Nationwide Arena. Matthews participated in a red no-contact sweater, but was able to play in the 3-on-3 tournament they held at the end, maneuvering comfortably in traffic and scoring the winning goal.
“I think everybody saw the red jersey and gave me some time and space out there, so I got lucky,” said Matthews. “It’s just fun to be back out there with the team and kind of compete in some of those drills.”
He’s made significant progress since taking a jarring hit from Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba on Oct. 27, but still needs to test his shoulder with contact before playing a game. Saturday will mark four weeks since Matthews went down with the injury — the minimum time the Leafs announced he’d be out — and he may still require another week or more of rehab with the team not scheduled to practice again until Tuesday.
“You know what guys, he’s not ready. So there’s no timeline here yet,” said Babcock. “We’ll just keep on keeping on until — there’s no sense rushing him back. When he gets back, he’s got to be in shape, he’s got to be ready physically and obviously mentally. When it’s time he’ll play.”
Amazingly, the Leafs have gone 7-4-0 without Matthews in the lineup heading into Friday’s visit against the Blue Jackets, which has eased the pressure on his recovery.
As much as he hates the extra conditioning skates he’s being put through daily, he understands the importance of staying patient during the recovery process. He missed 20 games during three separate injury absences last season, including a 10-game stretch with a right shoulder sprain.
“It’s a similar injury but obviously it’s going to heal differently,” said Matthews. “You never know. But just taking my time and making sure everything comes back all right. I’m feeling pretty good out there right now and still have a bit of a ways to go — I want to get back in a full practice without that red jersey — and take some bumps, give some bumps and see how it feels.”
The Leafs had plenty to be thankful for as they prepared to celebrate U.S. Thanksgiving with a big team dinner. This date has traditionally been used by NHL GMs to gauge what their team really is, and the numbers told an encouraging story about where Toronto stands.
It is third overall in point percentage (.682), fourth in goals per game (3.45) and fourth in goals allowed per game (2.64).
The list of players having monster seasons includes starting goalie Frederik Andersen and top defenceman Morgan Rielly — who have garnered Vezina and Norris Trophy talk, respectively — plus Mitch Marner and newcomer John Tavares, who has 14 goals through 22 games.
Then you add Matthews, who exploded out of the gates with 10 goals and 16 points in 10 and a half games before being injured, and the possibility of bringing Nylander back into the fold. No wonder everyone’s smiling.
“It’s been great to see us play the way we have,” said Matthews. “A couple really good wins for us.”
His parents are flying up to Toronto from their home in Arizona to spend some time with him this weekend. And on a big American holiday, he was looking forward to getting together with teammates and celebrating.
“I love turkey,” said Matthews.