TORONTO — He’s yet to miss a game because of an apparent right shoulder injury but that hasn’t stopped Toronto Maple Leafs players from being asked what it might be like without exciting rookie Mitch Marner at the rink.
"I mean he’s still here," veteran centre Tyler Bozak said cheerfully. "He’s not gone for good. We still see him every day!"
Marner didn’t practise Friday morning but head coach Mike Babcock was still hopeful he’d be available to play Saturday against the Ottawa Senators. The 19-year-old is listed as day-to-day, which would suggest the Leafs will avoid their leading scorer missing significant playing time.
"Obviously if I’m in charge he’s in," Babcock said of Saturday’s game, a date against the Carolina Hurricanes to follow Sunday. "If the doctors are in charge they’ll decide (Saturday)."
Marner was injured Wednesday night when he fell awkwardly into the boards during the second period of a 5-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. He returned to play two shifts in the third before exiting for good.
His absence, even for a game, would surely be felt by the Leafs (63 points), who enter Friday’s play holding down the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot just one point ahead of the New York Islanders and two in front of the Philadelphia Flyers. Toronto is also one point behind the Boston Bruins (64) and two in back of Ottawa for the final two Atlantic Division playoff spots.
Marner is enjoying a banner season, on pace to smash the franchise rookie records for most points and assists. He’s leading Toronto in both categories with 33 assists and 48 points in 56 games and tied with Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine for tops in NHL rookie scoring.
A shifty winger of considerable skill, vision and wily passing ability, Marner has been especially potent since Jan. 1, recording 22 points in 21 games. He’s a point behind Connor McDavid in that stretch and tied for 10th among all NHL players entering Friday’s play.
Babcock describes Marner as the driving force of a line that includes veterans Bozak and James van Riemsdyk.
"He’s a huge part of our team obviously," van Riemsdyk said. "You’ve seen the kind of success that he’s had already.
"It’s just an opportunity for other guys to step up now and play different roles if that’s the case and we’ll just see what happens and go from there."
Connor Brown slid into Marner’s usual spot at practice Friday and would play there if Marner can’t go against the Senators. Surging 23-year-old Josh Leivo would stand to take his spot on the power play with rookie Nikita Soshnikov also getting back into the lineup potentially after sitting recently due to injury.
Scratched a great deal this season, Leivo responded with a rare opportunity to play this week. He’s flourished with five points in two games, including a career-high three points in a 7-1 win Tuesday over the Islanders.
Babcock called Leivo the team’s best forward "by far" when he produced two assists against Columbus.
Brown, meanwhile, has registered 12 goals and 24 points in his rookie year. Babcock intended for the 23-year-old to begin the year alongside Bozak and van Riemsdyk before Marner came along and altered those plans.
"I didn’t know Mitch was ready like he is," Babcock said of Marner, the fourth overall pick of the 2015 draft.
Whether Marner plays or not, Toronto will be looking for a better showing Saturday, including from van Riemsdyk, benched briefly in the loss to Columbus.
The Leafs enter the division tilt with Ottawa having lost seven of their last 10 games. Toronto has benefited from remarkable luck in the injury department — Bozak (three games) and Morgan Rielly (six) the only significant contributors to miss time — and hopes to have dodged another bullet with Marner.
"It’s a long season; there’s obviously going to be injuries here and there," Bozak said. "It happens with every team so you’ve just got to battle through it."