Matthews’ absence won’t change Maple Leafs’ trade deadline approach

Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock tells us what he knows about Auston Matthews' injury, and says it's just another real opportunity for William Nylander and others to get reps at centre.

TORONTO – The concerns of the Toronto Maple Leafs were confirmed Friday, when an MRI revealed damage to Auston Matthews’ shoulder that will require him to miss games for the third time this season.

He is officially listed as day-to-day, but in the veiled parlance of the organization that typically means a player will be sidelined for at least a week and a half — ruling Matthews out for big divisional games against Boston on Saturday and Tampa on Monday and, quite possibly, the outdoor Stadium Series game at the U.S. Naval Academy on March 3.

The good news is that this doesn’t appear to be overly serious. As my colleague Nick Kypreos reported Friday afternoon, there’s a belief that Matthews will be able to return to the lineup well ahead of the playoffs.

This is important on a couple fronts.

First and foremost, the team’s decision-making ahead of Monday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, in which the Leafs were already in the market for depth down the middle. The injury to Matthews won’t change their approach and there’s still a chance it’ll pass without them making a move of significance.

“It’s called ‘trade’ — so it’s not like Christmas where someone drops off gifts,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “It isn’t like that. You’ve got to give something to get something, so if we can make a deal that’s going to help our team we’re going to make that deal. That can be short term and long term.

“We’re not going to do anything foolish, I know that for sure.”

The latest Matthews injury will give the Leafs another chance to look at William Nylander in the middle. He’ll line up between Zach Hyman and Connor Brown to start, and it will be interesting to see how long he remains there.

Long term, it would benefit the organization if the 21-year-old could play centre — a position of weakness beyond Matthews and Nazem Kadri, especially with Tyler Bozak likely to walk away as an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Babcock largely chose to shift veteran Patrick Marleau to the middle during the 10 games without Matthews in November and December, and expressed hope that the Nylander experiment might last longer this time around.

“Just play well without the puck,” he said, when asked what he’s looking for. “You’ve got to stop on defence, you’ve got to compete hard on the faceoff circle and you’ve got to do all the things right. Wingers — a prime example is scoring chances, which we chart all the time — is you can be average and still be fine. A centre’s got to be good every night.

“They’ve got to play 200 feet and they’ve got to compete.”

A major thing working in the Leafs’ favour is their position in the standings — at 38-20-5, they have a 21-point cushion on an Atlantic Division playoff spot. There’s no urgency or pressure, although in an ideal world they’d like to reel in either the Lightning or Bruins to secure home-ice advantage in the first round.

As for Matthews, he’s on a run of bad luck.

He missed four games in November with a suspected back injury and another six in December because of a concussion. The current shoulder ailment came when he got sandwiched between Adam Pelech and Cal Clutterbuck late in Thursday’s 4-3 shootout win over the New York Islanders.

“It’s hockey,” said Babcock. “You’re going to get bumped into and those things happen. Some years you’re luckier than others.”

Fortunately, when healthy, Matthews has actually scored at an even better rate than in his standout rookie season.

Babcock was looking at the positive side of things when he suggested that Matthews will benefit from a little extra rest at this stage in the season. There are still hopes in Toronto that there could be a long spring ahead.

“I say put a smile on your face. You get healthier, quicker, when you’re smiling. That was my advice,” said Babcock, digging back into the famed Saskatchewan science of injury recovery. “No, I mean, it’s sport. Get to work. Get to work and get back as fast as you can. Teammates would like to have you play.

“He’s a passionate guy, he wants to play. So I’m not very concerned about him, he’s fine, we were joking around in there a minute ago. He’ll be ready to go.”

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