TORONTO — Not only were the Toronto Maple Leafs preparing for a challenge like this, they welcomed it.
Kyle Dubas said as much when training camp opened what feels like, oh, a decade or so ago now.
“I think if we’re going to continue to take steps as an organization we have to be able to accept that it’s athletics — whether it’s through contract (issues), injury, surprise retirement, ineffectiveness — things are going to happen that we didn’t expect,” Dubas said on Sept. 12.
“And if we want to continue to take the right steps we have to weather those things and keep the train rolling on the tracks because the rest of the league doesn’t stop.”
Those words came to mind when Andreas Johnsson went down with a knee injury during Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Dallas Stars. The challenge is not so much about carrying on without their third-line winger — “it’s a knee injury that’s not going to be short term,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe — but handling the cumulative effects of a season where almost the entire roster has missed games with something.
Now, right off the hop, it must be said: Other teams have had it worse.
Pittsburgh and Columbus, to name two obvious choices, and also teams like Edmonton (Connor McDavid) and Calgary (Mark Giordano, Travis Hamonic) that have had to weather more high-profile losses in the last week.
This has also been a star-crossed year in Toronto, where only Auston Matthews and Tyson Barrie have suited up for all 58 games so far — and even Matthews had to skip the all-star game for treatment on an ailing wrist.
What makes the timing of Johnsson’s injury so difficult is that it would seem to take Toronto’s biggest trade chip out of play with 10 days remaining until the deadline. They probably could have spared a middle-class forward in pursuit of a defenceman with some term, but that seems less likely now that one of the candidates is gone for the foreseeable future.
“Our lineup and our look changes a lot here in terms of that top-nine with Johnsson being out,” said Keefe.
The Leafs are right in the thick of a playoff race — not among the Eastern Conference’s top eight in points percentage, but technically still holding the third seed in the Atlantic Division with a two-point cushion on the Florida Panthers.
They are being tested in a big way now and notably called off a planned Friday practice to rest some bumps and bruises, while also trying to fend off a flu bug that’s made its way through the dressing room.
“I think as a team here we’ve got to regroup,” said Keefe. “We’re going to stay away from the arena again tomorrow. As you’re seeing, we’re losing guys, and we’ve still got a number of guys that are battling some illnesses and pushing through it.”
The trickle-down effect could be seen in Thursday’s loss to the Stars: Matthews played 27:05, by far the most of his career. In fact, his top-11 NHL games in terms of minutes played have all come since Keefe replaced Mike Babcock in November.
Mitch Marner also set a new career-high vs. Dallas at 26:39.
And this is leading into another set of back-to-backs, at Ottawa on Saturday and Buffalo on Sunday. Two very winnable games and four much-needed points.
As Dubas predicted back in September, they’ve got to find their way through like Boston did a year ago. The Bruins survived a brutal regular season and wound up playing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
“Boston missed Chara for a month and a half, McAvoy for more than that, Bergeron for an extended period, Pastrnak for a month and a half and they just keep rolling on,” the Leafs GM noted.
He certainly doesn’t think the bad run of injury luck can be used as an explanation for a failed season.
“If that’s why we don’t make (the playoffs), that will be a failure on my end,” he said last week. “If you look around the league, I think we’ve actually been fortunate on the injury front. Pittsburgh, they’ve been better than us. They’ve had way more difficult injuries to endure. I don’t think injuries can ever be used as an excuse.”
The season is hard enough as it is.
And for the Leafs it’s only getting more difficult.