Maple Leafs’ Moves Suggest Matthews Could be Out a While

Toronto Maple Leafs’ reporter Lance Hornby, who writes for the Toronto Sun, wrote an interesting article late last night after a near-perfect game that saw the Maple Leafs end the Edmonton Oilers five-game winning streak with a 4-0 victory on the Oilers’ home ice. (from “Everyone from first overall picks to fourth-liners to backup goalie step up for Auston-less Leafs,” Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun, 28/02/21).

Can the Maple Leafs Sustain This Success?

One question that emerges after the Oilers’ game is whether the Maple Leafs are as good as they looked against the Oilers. Saturday night’s game was one of the better defensive efforts the entire team has played this season. The team’s victory blended a nice combination of their stars coming out and the work of a number of players who were replacing other stars who had been injured. It was a total team effort.

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Because several starters were absent from the lineup, they had to be replaced. Fortunately, the Maple Leafs’ replacements stepped up and helped the team win an important road game. One difference between this season’s iteration of the Maple Leafs and the team I’ve covered over the past two seasons is the depth this team seems to possess. The replacements played well and seemed to cover their teammates’ absence because of injuries.

The Maple Leafs Have Covered Injuries All Season Long

That’s been the case all season. When one player has gone down, another has stepped up to replace him. I can’t point to any Maple Leafs’ losses over the course of the 2020-21 season simply due to attrition or because the team was unable to overcome injuries. 

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

Because hockey is such a physical game, injuries will naturally occur. If they can be covered well enough, that can be a huge difference for the Maple Leafs’ hopes of a Stanley Cup push at the end of the season.

However, Might Auston Matthews’ Injury Be a Different Deal? 

I have no indication that Matthews’ injury will keep him out longer than Saturday’s game. However, I have been tracking Maple Leafs’ player movements recently. There seem to be a large number of them over the past few days. Could it be that Hornby is correct in his headline that hints Matthews might be gone? 

If he is going to miss a few games, Matthews is a player whose absence might become more crucial than other injuries. He’s an emerging superstar and late last week head coach Sheldon Keefe announced that he had been suffering from a wrist injury most of the season. 

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What’s amazing, when you think about it, is that Matthews has been able to play as well as he has given an injury aggravation. It’s not uncommon to hear talk about Matthews actually scoring 50 goals in this shortened and condensed 2020-21 season. As well, he’s growing into a demon on defense. 

Do the Maple Leafs’ Player Movements Offer an Insight?

If Matthews is out for any extended time, can the Maple Leafs overcome that injury? That’s why Hornby’s article was so interesting. He’s suggesting the team is gearing up for the possibility Matthews might be away from game action more than just Saturday night’s game. 

Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews jumps over the sticks of Detroit Red Wings Filip Hronek and Danny DeKeyser (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

If there’s any truth to that possibility, is the organization engaging in a number of player moves to gear up for such an event – just in case.

In this post, I’ll track some of the player movements the organization’s made over the past few days as a way for Maple Leafs’ fans to see what might be happening within the organization.

Player Movement One: Kenny Agostino Was Recalled from the AHL 

The Toronto Maple Leafs have recalled Kenny Agostino from its AHL affiliate the Toronto Marlies and have placed him on the team’s taxi squad. Agostino had scored two goals and five assists (for seven points) in eight games with the Marlies before his recall. It’s possible he’ll see some time on the ice should the Maple Leafs pick up any further injuries to their forward units.

Player Movement Two: Defenseman Martin Marincin Moved Down to the Marlies

The Maple Leafs sent defenseman Martin Marincin to the AHL Marlies. Marincin has yet to see game action in the Maple Leafs’ lineup and has held a spot on the team’s taxi squad for much of the season. The move will allow him to get in some playing time in the AHL.

Player Movement Three: Timothy Liljegren Is Recalled from the AHL

The Maple Leafs recalled young Swedish defenseman Timothy Liljegren from the AHL. He’s been placed on the team’s taxi squad. This promotion might have less to do with injuries and more to do with Liljegren’s growth as a player.

With the Marlies this season, Liljegren has played well and has become the Marlies’ best defenseman. It seems as if he’s grown into the player the team expected when it drafted him during the first-round (17th overall) of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. 

Toronto Maple Leafs Timothy Liljegren
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Timothy Liljegren (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand)

So far on the season, Liljegren has scored a goal and five assists (for six points) in eight games. Are the Maple Leafs wondering if it’s time to bring him up for some game action with the big club?

Player Movement Four: Mikko Lehtonen Is Moved to the Team’s Taxi Squad

For Mikko Lehtonen, this move might seem as if it’s a demotion; or, it simply might be one of the ways the organization is using player movement to reconcile salary-cap needs. Lehtonen had played during three of the teams past four games but sat out Saturday’s game against the Oilers.

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To my eyes the Finnish defenseman has picked up his game. I look for him to continue to share time as a third-pairing defenseman with the Maple Leafs.

Player Movement Five: Depth Forward Scott Sabourin Moved Down to the Taxi Squad

Scott Sabourin was rotated down to the taxi squad on Saturday. He will likely continue to be a rotational player for the Maple Leafs. Although the 28-year-old physical depth player has seen time on the active roster, he has yet to make his season debut. He likely won’t for a while.

Player Movement Six: Alex Galchenyuk Demoted to the Marlies

Alex Galchenyuk was assigned to the AHL’s Marlies on Saturday. It’s been a season of movement for Galchenyuk. To date, he’s been traded twice. The move likely allows the organization to see what they have in the once-promising young player. He’s only 27, and there has to be some hope that he’ll be able to find his game playing with the Marlies. 

Alex Galchenyuk
Alex Galchenyuk with the Montreal Canadiens, His first NHL team (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Interestingly, Galchenyuk hasn’t ever played below the NHL-level as a professional. He should get a good look in a top-six role with the AHL team.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

So much about the Maple Leafs’ future success depends upon Matthews’ health. He’s undoubtedly emerging as the team’s leader. Is there a chance that he will be gone for more than a game?

Using my logic and the hint Hornby made in his article after the game, what he suggests makes some sense. However, I can’t tell from looking at the Maple Leafs’ player transactions whether there’s a chance Matthews will be out for any extended time. 

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If he is, that would be too bad for Maple Leafs’ fans who would have loved to watch his assault on 50 goals in a 56-game season. And, it might eventually be an issue for Maple Leafs’ success over the games he’s away – or it might not. The team seems able to cope so far. 

Finally, if there is an injury and it can heal, better now than during the postseason. It would be nice if the Maple Leafs had all their players for what promises to be a much-longer run into postseason play.

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