Maple Leafs Cannot Afford an Injured Auston Matthews

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews left Monday’s game late in the third period. The team’s leading scorer fell and hit his head against an opponent’s knee. Matthews stayed down, holding his head as the 500 spectators inside the arena and thousands of Leafs’ fans at home held their collective breath.

Morning Skate newsletter Click To Subscribe

Then, about 90 seconds later, Matthews skated off the ice under his own power and went directly to the dressing room. The Maple Leafs don’t have any information on his status. Still, even the notion of losing their superstar player for any length of time is a significant concern. Toronto lacks depth, faces a jam-packed schedule and is in an intense divisional fight.

Maple Leafs’ Depth and Line Combinations

Toronto’s Achilles’ heel was exposed when COVID circulated around the team; surprisingly, it’s a significant lack of depth. It meant star players like Matthews, and the other core four picked up extra shifts to make up for a nonexistent fourth line. Matthews is not only the leading scorer for the team, but he is often the leading minute man among forwards.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs left Monday’s game with an injury (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As we’ve seen previously, Keefe changes a lot of line combinations when one player goes down. He will likely move John Tavares up the number one centre. Kerfoot, currently a second-line winger, will move to the centre to take Tavares’s spot. Ilya Mikheyev, currently on the third line, will move up to take the second line spot. Pierre Engvall will move from the fourth line to the third line to take Mikheyev’s spot. Every line will be impacted. The fourth line fill-in will be Nick Ritchie or Kyle Clifford, neither of which have done anything to impress, and both have been sent down to the Marlies.

Matthews Scoring Pace

The Maple Leafs’ offence has come to life since the Christmas break. Matthews, who had a slow start to the season by his standards, has found the touch and is now firmly in the race to repeat as the Maurice Rocket Richard Trophy winner. He scored twice in the game before the injury to sit at 31 goals on the season. Matthews takes the attention of the opposition’s top defenders, who have to shadow him whenever he is on the ice.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Marner Has Rediscovered Goal Scoring Touch

However, while those guys are preoccupied, other Maple Leafs can find more room. His linemates are doing well, Mitch Marner has put together an eight-game goal streak, and Michael Bunting, who came into the season with 11 career NHL goals, has 13 goals. Tavares is certainly no slouch for the offence; he has points 240 in 243 games as a member of the Maple Leafs. But he has also admitted to changing his game to better suit Toronto’s needs.

Maple Leafs’ Schedule is Full

There is never a good time for an injury, but this might be one of the worst time. Thanks to the NHL’s move to postpone games in Canada because of crowd capacity, Toronto has a very busy February. Between Feb. 10 and Feb. 28, the Maple Leafs play ten games, and only three of those games are at home. An injury now, even one considered minor with a player out for 2 to 3 weeks, could cost 10 games.

The Maple Leafs are trying to track down the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic Division. The Boston Bruins have come to life and sit eight points back. A stumble or a slump could drastically change the standings.

Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

The most important thing is the health of Matthews. I don’t recall him ever staying down on the ice in all his time playing in Toronto. When he has suffered an injury, he has made it to the bench before being taken to the locker room. That alone made the sight of him on the ice more alarming. He has the day off on Tuesday, and Toronto will have time to properly access him before heading west; they next play in Calgary on Feb. 10.