TORONTO – The shoulder separation that’s put Auston Matthews on the sidelines for nearly three weeks is an obvious source of frustration for the Toronto Maple Leafs centre.
And not just because it’s his third different injury absence of the season. The 20-year-old has also dealt with a similar shoulder issue in the past.
"Yeah, I have," Matthews revealed Tuesday. "A long time ago."
That means he has a pretty good understanding of the road ahead.
Matthews still hasn’t been cleared for contact – he donned a red sweater yet again at practice – and that’s an essential step before he can rejoin the Leafs lineup. It’s not just a matter of getting back playing, however, but how long it takes him to feel comfortable in game situations.
There’s no guarantee he’s back to feeling 100 per cent before the playoffs begin next month.
Even with a shoulder harness, players that suffer a second-degree separation often experience discomfort well beyond the rehab period. It can be an annoying, painful injury.
Matthews didn’t initially realize how bad of shape his shoulder was in after getting sandwiched between Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in open ice on Feb. 22. The double hit came one shift after he’d scored his 28th goal of the season to tie a game with the New York Islanders late in regulation.
"Pain in my shoulder," said Matthews, when asked what he felt in the moment. "That’s about it."
It was nothing more than a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I think just because there was contact from both sides," he said. "It’s tough to brace yourself from both sides there, so it was just kind of a flukey play and unfortunate. But, you know, it happens."
Matthews is doing his best to stay positive during an absence that now stands at six games and counting. There’s no reason to expect him back until next Tuesday, at the earliest, meaning he’ll likely sit out at least three more.
Unlike the concussion and back injury that sidelined him earlier this season, Matthews has at least been able to skate with teammates – a small consolation while he works to regain strength in his shoulder.
"I’ve felt better every day," said Matthews. "It’s nice to get on the ice with the guys and kind of take reps … instead of just skating by yourself. You can get your timing and stuff back, which is a big key when I return to play."
But there was a clear sense of disappointment in his voice while he spoke with reporters for the first time since the injury. It’s been a sophomore season of stops and starts, and he could end up sitting out 20 games or more in Year 2 after playing all 82 as a rookie.
"It’s obviously frustrating, there’s no question about that," said Matthews. "Stuff happens. Everything happens for a reason, I guess. You just kind of stick with it and, like I said, do your best to get back. To get healthy. I’ve been doing a good job of staying in shape with my conditioning, working with the trainers and stuff.
"We’ll see how it goes."
This being Toronto, there’s no shortage of pop theories floating around about why this latest injury absence might actually be a good thing for Matthews. (Spoiler: It’s not). The player was quick to shut down any suggestion that he’ll benefit from the extra rest once the playoffs arrive.
"No, I don’t really buy into that notion," said Matthews. "I’d rather play."