LOS ANGELES — When Auston Matthews missed games with three separate injuries last season, he was seldom seen. His rehab work was largely done in private. He stayed home when the Toronto Maple Leafs hit the road.
There has been a different approach to his most recent layoff — a left shoulder injury that’s kept him out since Oct. 27 — with Matthews joining the Leafs for this four-game road trip and even stepping on the practice ice with them for a couple minutes on Monday afternoon before doing a one-on-one session with player development consultant Darryl Belfry.
It’s part of a concerted effort to keep the spirits of the 21-year-old centre as high as possible during his recovery.
"If you’re a married guy and you’ve got three kids and you can be at home with your family and skate at home why wouldn’t you do that? But if you’re a young guy and you’re sitting in Toronto in your condo what do you do?" said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "I mean these are your buddies, this is what you do. Why wouldn’t you hang out with your guys? I think mental health is so important in getting better as well as the physical part."
It makes a lot of sense.
The travel is not putting any undue strain on Matthews because of the nature of his injury. It would be different, say, if he needed crutches or a walking boot. And the Leafs will spend eight nights away from home during a road trip that started in Boston last weekend and won’t see them fly back to Toronto until Saturday morning.
As the only injured player on the roster, that would be a lot of alone time with the trainers.
Here he can be put through the exact same type of exercises while also enjoying the camaraderie of his teammates, not to mention the California sun.
"As a player when you get hurt, I think the mental side of not being around the team and kind of feeling a little on the outside looking in is the most frustrating part," said Leafs centre Nazem Kadri. "And not being around the guys all the time, 24/7, practising. It’s nice to have him involved and he’s a big piece of our team and we miss him. It’s nice of him to come on the road trip and hopefully he can enter the lineup sometime soon."
The Leafs have not updated the timeline on Matthews’ recovery since the initial announcement of "four weeks minimum." That would take him until Nov. 24. It’s believed that he’s progressing well and that the target for his return is still considered fluid — with the Leafs facing a jam-packed schedule featuring nine games in 16 days starting with Tuesday’s visit to Los Angeles.
He’s not considered an option on this road trip, but could return as soon as the following weekend.
Toronto has fared reasonably well without Matthews, rallying for a victory over the Winnipeg Jets after he was injured on a jarring Jacob Trouba hit early in the Oct. 27 game and then going 3-3-0 since.
It came with Matthews enjoying the best start of his career by racking up 10 goals and 16 points in 11 games. While obviously not happy to be sidelined again — "It sucks," Matthews told reporters on Oct. 29 — teammates say he’s been in good spirits.
"He brings a lot of energy, he’s a leader," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "I mean he wants to be around us, too, I think. He’s working hard and trying to get healthy — obviously we want him back — but it’s important that he does whatever he has to do in order to get ready. That’s what he’s doing."
The fact Matthews has been skating with Belfry, his longtime skills coach, offers a glimpse into how he’s approaching this recovery. He’s trying to sharpen some of his shot and puck skills while also maintaining conditioning on the ice.
When Babcock saw Matthews skate out near the end of Monday’s practice in suburban Los Angeles, he hoped it was a sign his star player is closer to being a lineup option.
"I just told him there today — he got on the ice there — and I said ‘buckle up, join the drill,"’ said Babcock. "And then I noticed a dog collar got on him and they pulled him right next to the bench and they said ‘No chance."’
That’s the next step to look for. Seeing Matthews participate in a full practice while taking some contact will be an indicator that he’s almost ready to play.