John Tavares’ oblique injury ‘alters the plan’ for Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe discusses captain John Tavares' oblique strain that will keep him out for a minimum of three weeks.

TORONTO — One man’s injury is another’s opportunity.

Such is the yin and yang that keeps the world of team sports spinning.

So, while word of a significant injury to Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares was hardly welcome news at the club’s practice facility Tuesday, multiple forwards will be given an audition at second-line centre.

And the team should learn a thing or two about its centre depth.

Tavares, 32, hasn’t felt right since tweaking his abdomen in Saturday’s pre-season game against the Ottawa Senators. He practised in full Monday but was advised not to take the ice Tuesday.

Tests revealed an oblique strain that will sideline the star for a minimum of three weeks and four regular-season games.

Tavares also dealt with an oblique injury in May of 2019 that required a month’s recovery and caused him to miss the world championships for Team Canada.

“Obviously, he’s a huge part of our team, and (this) alters the plan for sure,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said.

“It’s additional opportunities for guys to step up and fill in that space. Obviously, you’re not going to replace John, but this is an opportunity for us to look at others — and others to step up and take advantage of that opportunity.”

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Ironically, the Maple Leafs’ primary lineup focus during training camp was to find the optimal forward to skate on Tavares’s left wing. Now, they must find the best backup option for Tavares himself.

Keefe mentioned Alexander Kerfoot and Calle Järnkrok, his trusted go-to Swiss army knives, as candidates who should see prime shifts in that 2C role during Toronto’s remaining exhibition games.

Pontus Holmberg, the 23-year-old Swedish prospect, is a sneaky dark-horse alternative as the organization sorts through and leans on its depth.

“We’ve got a number of different options. In the time that we have remaining, we’ll look at those,” Keefe said.

“We hope that this is the time where we need (our depth), and then we can be healthy the rest of the way.”

Camp isn’t yet a week old, and already Tavares joins a growing list of Maple Leafs dealing with ailments or absences.

Jake Muzzin (back), Pierre Engvall (foot/ankle), Timothy Liljegren (hernia), Adam Gaudette (shoulder), Rasmus Sandin (contract stalemate)… and now Tavares.

Muzzin will make his debut at team practice Wednesday, although he is not expected to be a full participant.

Keefe views training camp as critical to the team calendar, and it’s challenging to get his players up to speed and figure out line combos, defence pairs and special-teams units with so many bodies on the mend.

On the bright side, Keefe notes, the timeline of these injuries — all of which can be measured in weeks, not months — should ensure full health not too long after Opening Night.

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