Matthews skating, but Maple Leafs taking long view with franchise star

Mitch Marner, Mike Babcock and Morgan Rielly discuss how exciting it was for injured Maple Leaf Auston Matthews to have his teammates and buddies back from their 10-game extended road trip.

TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs are eager to finish a practice with one of the best players you could choose to start a franchise.

Auston Matthews skated alongside his teammates Wednesday at the club’s practice facility for the first time in two weeks.

Although the Leafs leading goal-scorer left the ice in his red, non-contact sweater after just 20 minutes of action, coach Mike Babcock sees value in gradually working his superstar back into the group’s routine.

“It’s good for him, right? Just mentally, instead of hanging out by yourself. We were gone for 10 days [on a road trip], and these are his buddies. So, who do you hang out in Toronto with?” Babcock asked, rhetorically.

“The priority for him is to do as much as he can each day. When he’s ready — or over-ready — we’ll get him back in the lineup.”

Toronto has lost its past four games and posted a shaky 1-2-2 record since Matthews’ right shoulder was separated during an awkward double body-check against the Islanders last month.

Because the Leafs have a 14-point cushion on a playoff berth and are all but locked in as the Atlantic Division’s third seed, however, there will be no rushing their No. 1 centre back.

Matthews will not be made available to reporters until he completes a full practice, and the Leafs will be granted another off-day Thursday.

On the prospect of Matthews getting the green light Saturday night at Air Canada Centre versus Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Babcock pointed to the non-contact sweater.

“I just noticed he was wearing red today,” the coach said, dryly. “We don’t have a whole lot of red in our uniform.”

Too bad, as fans will be deprived of marquee match-up between two of the top three players the NHLPA voted the best player to build a franchise around.

Edmonton’s Connor McDavid took top honours in that category (48.6 per cent, as voted by his peers). Crosby (23.8 per cent) ranked second, and Matthews (5.8 per cent) third.

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“Third?! I thought it’d be higher,” said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, who may or may not be biased.

“Guys value that. When you compete against these guys all year, you want to gain their respect. I think Auston has certainly done that.”

Matthews wasn’t the only Leaf who popped up in the poll. Babcock ranked fourth among coaches that players want to skate for; Matt Martin was named fifth toughest player; D.J. Smith was tabbed as the assistant coach most worthy of a head-coaching post; Leafs Nation rated as the fourth-best fan base; and Patrick Marleau ranked among the top five role models.

Marleau, naturally, spun conversation of his own leadership skills back to the youth, and to Matthews’ standing in the NHLPA poll.

“It shows you how much respect he’s already earned in such a short time around the league—what other players think about him, how good he is on the ice,” Marleau said.

“All that holds true.”

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