Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Matthews, Tavares, Bunting, Marner & Lines

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll report the status of the team as it enters its first regular-season game against the Montreal Canadiens. Because Auston Matthews and Ilya Mikheyev are out, a number of moves had to be made to the line combinations. In this post, I’ll report what these are.

Related: Maple Leafs 2021-22 Line Combos Starting to Take Shape

Item One: Auston Matthews Likely to Miss Three Regular-Season Games

The Maple Leafs will play their first regular-season game tonight, and they’ll do it without their 24-year-old, all-world center Matthews. It was reported that Matthews would miss the first three games of the season. Apparently, his wrist is not fully-recovered from surgery and the organization doesn’t want to risk it not healing to 100 percent.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Last season, Matthews suffered the wrist issue, yet still led the NHL with 41 goals even while missing four games with that injury. Two days ago, when his absence from the line-up was reported, he noted that “We’re taking it day by day and lots can change, but as of right now this week is probably out of the question. But you never know what could happen.” (from “Leafs star Auston Matthews expected to miss first three regular-season games due to surgery,” Nathan Denette, The Globe and Mail, 11/10/21).

Item Two: John Tavares Will Center the Maple Leafs’ First-Line

John Tavares can hardly be blamed for the Maple Leafs’ first-round expulsion from the Stanley Cup playoffs, but that doesn’t mean he still isn’t smarting from the loss to the Canadiens.  

Tavares noted that the loss “was pretty miserable. Disappointing. Hard to take. It’s going to leave some type of scar given the expectations we created for ourselves. I think for us, it’s also somewhat of an opportunity to learn and reflect. Now there’s a lot of work ahead of us to get to where we want to get to.”

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It had to be doubly-miserable for Tavares, who was forced to sit out with his concussion without even a chance to help. Tonight, he gets his first taste of regular-season revenge as he centers the team’s first line with newcomer Nick Ritchie on the left side and Mitch Marner on the right side. 

Taraves has often benefited from playing with Marner, and Maple Leafs’ fans could see if that will be the case tonight – that is, if Marner can play himself. As will be noted later, there’s a possibility the team will be without Marner as well. Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe hinted that he wasn’t as prepared for the moves he’s had to make because he was expecting Matthews back. 

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Keefe noted that, “I hadn’t put John there (in the first-line center spot) save for a few shifts and maybe a practice or something through camp. We were counting on the fact that Auston was gearing towards being able to be available for us.”

Keefe noted that he was “shifting gears here now, I like John in that spot.” 

Item Three: Michael Bunting Jumps to Team’s Second Line

With the injury to Ilya Mikheyev, it means that newcomer Michael Bunting will move up to the team’s second line. Bunting’s a bit of a late-bloomer, who played only 21 games last season with the Arizona Coyotes but was able to score at an impressive rate by potting almost a goal every second game. That rate hasn’t slowed during his preseason games with the Maple Leafs.

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Now that Mikheyev needs thumb surgery and will be out for two months, Bunting gets a huge chance to log big minutes at even-strength. The projected opening-night second line will be Alex Kerfoot at center and William Nylander at right wing. 

Item Four: Is Mitch Marner Hurt? If So, How Much?

Maple Leafs’ fans have to hope it’s nothing, but word out of the team’s practice on Tuesday was that Mitch Marner didn’t practice as a precaution. Apparently, Marner was dinged up during a collision with Wayne Simmonds. His situation will be re-evaluated today so his status might change. Word this morning just prior to publishing this post was that Marner will be a game-time decision.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Teammate Jason Spezza, who weighed in on Marner’s condition after the practice, wasn’t too concerned. He reported that he believed it was a minor incident; however, he also noted that he hadn’t talked with Marner about his condition so he probably shouldn’t say anything.

The bottom line right now is that, unless Marner misses Wednesday morning’s skate, he’ll probably play tonight. That said, his status is in doubt.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

This is one of those days where the answer to this question is obvious. The regular season begins and with it the organization’s hope for success. To use two idioms, a lot of questions are up in the air right off the bat. 

Related: 5 Maple Leafs on the Bubble Heading Into the 2021-22 Season

Can Matthews have another outstanding season? Can he hit the 50-goal mark for the first time in his career? Can the 24-year-old Marner improve on his scoring rate of 67 points in 55 games? How will the new special teams work this season? 

Perhaps even more important, how will the five key newcomers fit in and play – Bunting, Ritchie, David Kampf, Ondrej Kase, and Petr Mrazek all start with their new team this week? Tonight Maple Leafs’ fans start to see.

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