Auston Matthews returns to Maple Leafs practice: ‘The sky’s the limit’

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox discuss Auston Matthews hitting the ice at training camp and Mitch Marner practicing the bumper position on the powerplay.

TORONTO – A jolt of excitement shot through Toronto Maple Leafs headquarters Tuesday as Auston Matthews joined team practice for the first time since training camp opened.

Still recovering from August’s wrist surgery, the reigning Rocket Richard champ had been skating regularly on his own, toiling away in the gym and, since Friday, handling pucks on an empty sheet.

But the centre’s debut in rush, backchecking and shooting drills was a welcome sight.

“You always feel a little bit left out when you're not with the group and injured,” Jason Spezza explained. “It's a tough feeling as an athlete, so the sooner we get him back into the mix — even if he's not full participant but just part of the group — I think will help him.

“He takes the game very seriously. He spends a lot of time on his craft. He's always working on different things. You can tell he's come with some things that he's been focusing on here through the summer, and he looks great off the ice, and we're excited to see him on the ice.”

Matthews left the hour-long morning practice early, after about 25 minutes of work, enough time to slip more than a couple pucks past Jack Campbell.

“Yeah, I love that. He's that player that he is, and he's that leader in our group too, so it's always great to have him back on the ice,” Rasmus Sandin beamed.

“Even though he wasn't on the whole practice, he looked really good. I never get surprised with how many goals he scores during practice, even though this was his first practice with the team.”

Spezza notes that off-season injuries are easier on players because they don’t feel as much urgency to rush recovery and jump back into action.

To that end, the organization isn't placing a definitive timeline on its superstar's return.

The Maple Leafs are “very confident” their MVP is on track to dress Opening Night, Oct. 13, and have not ruled out squeezing him into an exhibition game next week. That would be a bonus.

For now, the sniper is avoiding contact drills and ramping toward taking faceoffs and putting his usual torque on his wristers.

Matthews, 24, will enter 2021-22 hot off consecutive 40-goal campaigns and, if healthy, should topple Rick Vaive’s franchise record for most goals in a single season (54).

He has set personal goals for himself — 50? 60? — that choses to keep private.

Nothing would shock Matthews' teammates, who watched him rip 41 in 52 games last winter despite a nagging bone bruise in his wrist that hindered his greatest weapon.

No big deal. Matthews found a way to beat goalies on rebounds, tips and dekes instead.

"He didn't play many games where he was feeling 100 per cent and yet still was incredible," coach Sheldon Keefe said.

"It's exciting to know that he's going to be feeling better when he gets back on the ice and playing for real again."

“What's really impressive, especially battling the injury last year, is his ability to adapt his game. Obviously, he has such a unique shot and release,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said.

“But his ability to adjust and adapt when that's not always going to be available to him [and] find ways to produce in different ways is such a key factor why he's just so consistent and so dangerous.”

Spezza believes Matthews, who posted a career-best plus-21 rating, reached another level in terms of his defensive commitment and competitiveness last season.

Still, there is a higher tier for the Hart Trophy runner-up to hit.

“The sky's the limit for Auston. I think he's a guy that can be the best player in the game. He's dominant both sides of the puck. He does a lot of great things even when he doesn't score goals, and I think that's something that gets lost a little bit,” Spezza said.

“How well he tracks pucks, how hard he is to play against, how good he is when we have a lead. And he's just a big man that covers a lot ice, so he does a lot of great things.”

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