TORONTO — As the Toronto Maple Leafs sluggishly went about the early part of the NHL schedule, head coach Mike Babcock would often point to the new faces in the lineup and the new systems being implemented as reasons for his team’s uninspiring start.
Toronto’s head coach also went out of his way to mention the absence of Zach Hyman — the gritty forward tasked with retrieving the puck and making space for star linemates John Tavares and Mitch Marner.
Hyman In, Marner Out
The good news is the Leafs are set to welcome Hyman back from a serious knee injury. The bad news is they’re also dealing with the realization that Marner will be out at least four weeks, and quite possibly longer, with a high ankle sprain.
“It would be nice to come back and play with him again and to reunite on that front,” Hyman said of Marner on Tuesday before adding with a smile: “He’ll be back soon and I guess I’ll be up to game speed by then.”
Marner hobbled off in Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers after stepping on an opponent’s stick at the start of the second period. He made it to the bench and tried to take part in a power-play shift a few minutes later before heading to the locker room.
The 22-year-old, who said he felt “a snap” in his right ankle, tested the joint again during a television timeout, but was pulled out of the action by the Leafs’ medical team. He was in a walking boot Tuesday and hopes to have it off by Friday.
“You’re always (disappointed),” said Marner, who will go on long-term injury reserve. “But looking back at the video, seeing the photos, it could have been a lot worse.
“At that time I was ready to look back and see my ankle twisted the wrong way.”
High ankle sprains can be tricky, with the timeline for a return often hard to predict. Marner, whose move to LTIR does help the Leafs’ salary cap crunch, missed Sunday’s 5-4 loss in Chicago against the Blackhawks and will sit out at least the next 12 games before being re-evaluated.
Marner, Tavares and Hyman combined for 223 points in 2018-19, and were on the ice for 53 of Toronto’s 166 goals at 5 on 5, according to the website naturalstattrick.com.
Marner is currently second in scoring on the Leafs with 18 points, seven back of Auston Matthews, but just 10 have come at even strength.
Toronto, which sits 9-6-4 heading into Wednesday’s road game against the New York Islanders, went 3-2-2 with Tavares out of the lineup from Oct. 19 to Nov. 2 with a broken finger.
Marner’s Absence Creates Opportunities
“It’s unfortunate,” Tavares said of Marner’s absence. “We want him back as soon as possible, but the circumstances are what they are. That’s why you need depth, and we certainly have that.
“It’s a great opportunity for many guys.”
Kasperi Kapanen should get the first crack alongside Tavares and Hyman, while winger Nic Petan was recalled from the American Hockey League and looks set to slot in on the fourth line.
Babcock, however, wasn’t promising anything following Tuesday’s practice.
“We’ve got to figure it out as a coaching staff, and them as players, and figure out who plays with who to help the group be the best it can be,” he said. “We’ll take a look and try and get the group to be set up the best way it can to have success.”
Babcock added it’s tough to know what Hyman, who underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered in last spring’s playoff loss to the Boston Bruins, will bring in his first game since April.
“He just works … like a dog,” said the coach. “Can he get on the forecheck and get us the puck back like he always does? I don’t know the answer for that. How can (he) be on that right-hand faceoff circle on the penalty kill? I don’t know that either.”
Tavares said the juggling of linemates can be a challenge, especially when replacing a unique talent like Marner.
“Guys play different ways, have different tendencies,” said Toronto’s captain, who’s ready for another rough reception against his former team on Long Island. “It’s trying to just have a feel for that and be predictable for one another, but be unpredictable for the opponent.”
What’s easy to predict, however, is the effort level Hyman’s set to infuse in his return to the lineup.
“I’ve learned just to do what I do best and no worry about other things,” Hyman said. “Hopefully I’ll just pick up where I left off.”
Leafs backup goalie Michael Hutchinson cleared waivers Tuesday and will report to the AHL Marlies after falling to 0-4-1 on the season in Sunday’s loss to Chicago. Tavares said the players in front of Hutchinson didn’t do him any favours. “We have to own that,” he said. “We just did not play very well.” … Toronto recalled Kasimir Kaskisuo to serve as the No. 2 netminder behind Frederik Andersen. The Leafs host Boston on Friday before visiting Pittsburgh on Saturday. Kaskisuo, 26, could make his first NHL appearance against the Penguins.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2019.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press