How the Maple Leafs plan to navigate John Tavares' on-ice absence

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston discuss the mood at Maple Leafs practice the day after the very scary incident involving their captain John Tavares, who will have to step up in his absence, and whether they can use his injury as a rally cry.

TORONTO -- Before his discharge from St. Michael’s Hospital, John Tavares sent a note to the Toronto Maple Leafs group chat and had a phone conversation with Jason Spezza.

There was also a call with Morgan Rielly and other individual interactions with teammates.

“I think he’s taken it upon himself to reach out to guys to make sure that they know he’s doing good, too,” Spezza said Friday. “So that just speaks to his character. That he’s the guy in the hospital and he’s worried about us making sure we’re ready to go.”

Consider where your own thoughts might be hours after being stretchered away from a scene as traumatic as the one we witnessed at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday night. You might adore your colleagues, but you likely wouldn’t be overly concerned about how they were going to manage the workload in your absence. (Sorry Elliotte).

It’s a perspective shared here as a reminder of how unique the work environment is in professional sports, where the term family is often thrown around for good reason. Seeing Tavares wheeled out of a first-round series with the Montreal Canadiens after just 10 minutes is something the Leafs will now attempt to use as a galvanizing force.

There’s no case to be made for how they might be better suited to handle Saturday’s Game 2 with Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre Engvall entering the lineup for Tavares and Riley Nash.

Even in a season where the production was slow to come early on, Tavares finished with 19 goals and 50 points in 56 games. No Canadiens player put up points at that rate. And this is a best-of-seven where goals might prove difficult to come by, just as they were in Montreal’s 2-1 opening victory.

That’s why Sheldon Keefe made multiple changes with his captain out of the lineup indefinitely. In a surprise move, he chose to shift Nick Foligno from his more natural position on the wing to centre between Galchenyuk and William Nylander, allowing him to leave the Zach Hyman-Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner top line untouched following a Game 1 where they dominated everywhere but the scoreboard.

“Hockey is not a one-man show,” Keefe explained, summing up the challenge without Tavares. “We’ve got to rally, if you will, around this situation and just step up and be better.”

Foligno volunteered for a move to the middle after Tavares left Thursday’s game and can actually draw on some recent experience at the position. He played a fair bit of centre in Columbus earlier this season after the team dealt Pierre-Luc Dubois to Winnipeg, and Keefe noted that he’s comfortable playing low in the defensive zone as the first forward back.

Any offence from the reconfigured second line will be driven by Galchenyuk, an effective forechecker who gets a chance to face the organization that drafted him, and the elite puck carrying and shooting talent of Nylander.

“A good strong forechecking line, for sure, and then Willy’s got the touch,” said Spezza.

Engvall joins a third line with Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev that actually got some decent run during the regular season -- generating positive results in shot attempts (52 per cent) and expected goals (53 per cent) despite starting the majority of its shifts away from the offensive zone.

That leaves the Silver Stick Trio intact and not overburdened with too much work, with Spezza, Simmonds and Joe Thornton likely to be sprinkled in intermittently.

Matching up against the Leafs won’t be as daunting without the ability to roll Tavares out behind Matthews, but it still requires finding an answer for the NHL’s most lethal goal scorer and one of its top playmakers.

Plus there’s a “we before me” mentality that can take hold. The last Leafs team to go on an extended playoff run in 2002 did so without captain and leading scorer, Mats Sundin, who suffered a fractured wrist in Game 1 of the first round and didn’t return until the Eastern Conference Final.

The 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins won a Stanley Cup without top defenceman Kris Letang for the entire post-season and the Tampa Bay Lightning made it through the bubble playoffs while only having captain Steven Stamkos healthy enough to play five shifts on the way to a championship.

“There’s no shortage of examples over the history of our game,” said Keefe.

It’s far too soon to gauge when Tavares might be ready to play again. After taking Corey Perry’s knee directly to the chin during Thursday’s game, forcing his head skyward with the impact, he underwent testing and scans on his neck and skull.

Keefe confirmed that the captain suffered a concussion and noted that his other initial tests have “come back clear,” but steered clear of discussing other potential issues he may be dealing with.

After returning home from hospital, Tavares released a statement saying that he looks forward to when he can wear the Maple Leaf on his chest again. He’s also been communicating with teammates and offering his encouragement from afar.

“Just checking in. Just asking if he needs anything,” Rielly said of their Friday morning conversation. “I mean he’s in good hands. Our staff here in Toronto is world class.

“He gotten taken care of, he’s feeling better and nobody wants us to prepare today and to work and to be there tomorrow for a good effort more than him.

“So, yeah, we’re playing for him.”

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