They were anointed contenders this summer because they entered the season with three players that might each be labelled a No. 1 centre elsewhere, and they must now make due with two of them while Matthews recovers.
Even if this injury lasts as long as his previous shoulder ailment did — 10 games, stretched over 28 days in February and March — that shouldn’t be too much terrain for an elite team to navigate.
Even it ends up being much longer, the Leafs are equipped to compete in his absence.
“You’re not going to replace a player like Matts,” said John Tavares, a mighty fine replacement at 1C. “He’s one of the best in the league. But we’ve certainly got a hell of a group in here talent-wise, skill-wise and I think work ethic[-wise].”
The only true concern seemed to come for Matthews on a personal level, even though he told teammates that he felt better than expected the morning after taking a jarring hit from Winnipeg Jets defenceman Jacob Trouba while driving towards the net.
This will be his fourth separate injury absence inside a calendar year. That takes a mental toll. Matthews rocketed out of the gates this season and appeared poised to threaten 50 goals while taking up residency among the NHL’s scoring leaders.
Those types of personal milestones will be pushed out of reach if Monday’s MRI reveals damage that keeps him from playing for the next three or four weeks. The best-case scenario would see Matthews prescribed a rehab schedule similar to the one he went through on his right shoulder late last season. If he requires immediate surgery, the 21-year-old could be lost for a period of months.
Either way, it’s not an ideal spot for Matthews to find himself after producing 16 points in 11 games on a team that sits atop the NHL standings with an 8-3-0 record.
“It’s frustrating when things happen,” said Tavares, who suffered a torn MCL and torn meniscus in his left knee during the 2014 Sochi Olympics that forced him to miss the final two months of the New York Islanders’ season. “Things can kind of be out of your control and you’re always trying to find reasons why it happened or how you can fix it or improve it going forward.
“…I know for myself, when you’ve missed time, you feel like there’s a lot of your game that you’ve missed out on. The impact that you want to make, the player you want to be [to] help your team.”
Toronto’s depth down the middle won’t look so overwhelming when it hosts the Calgary Flames without No. 34 on Monday night. But it’s much better than it was when he went down a year ago, thanks to the free-agent signing of Tavares.
He will centre a line with Zach Hyman and the red-hot Kasperi Kapanen, one of the pleasant surprises early in this Leafs season. That leaves Nazem Kadri reunited with Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner — the unit that drove Toronto’s 3-2 comeback win against Winnipeg after Matthews went down on Saturday night, and a trio that spent considerable time together last season.
In fact, over 370 even-strength minutes total, Marleau-Kadri-Marner has outscored opponents 20-13 while holding a slight edge in possession, according to Corsica.Hockey.
For now, the Tavares and Kadri lines amount to a pretty strong one-two punch. The power play should still be lethal with the right-shooting Kapanen subbing in on the left wall of the top unit. There are some scorers in the bottom six (Andreas Johnsson–Par Lindholm–Connor Brown, Josh Leivo–Frederik Gauthier–Tyler Ennis) and any offence from those lines would be a bonus.
“It’s obviously hard to fill [Matthews’] spot,” said Marner. “The scoring ability he brings to our team and the leadership and just having him on the ice, I think it brings a threat to the other team. It’s definitely a void that we’re missing.”
The Leafs also continue to have William Nylander MIA because of a contract dispute, but he can play both centre and the wing if it gets resolved in the near future.
Even without Matthews, this is a group that seems confident it’ll carry on without its best player — just as it did last year while going 11-7-2 when he was on the shelf.
Stuff happens in this sport. The play where Matthews got injured was more bad luck than anything. “It sucks the way he was taking it to the net and ended up getting hit just awkwardly,” said Marleau.
Now they hope for good news from Monday’s examination. Some of the Leafs were encouraged by his demeanour in the training room before Sunday’s practice.
“Initially when you first get hurt or banged or whatever you get, it’s like panic mode for a little bit. And then you get up the next day and you feel a lot better than you expected,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
“Until he’s checked out, though, it’s just you and me talking.”