During the Saturday night radio broadcast of the Toronto Maple Leafs, there was a moment that Leaf Nation held its breath. Joe Bowen described William Nylander getting cross-checked and falling awkwardly into the boards. Jim Ralph said, “he’s hurt!” I watched the game on mute and waited for the camera to focus on Nylander, but it continued to follow the play. The radio commentators described he was having a hard time skating and then discovered his skate blade popped out. Nylander got to the bench for repairs and was back out one shift later.
This brief moment in time was a quick reminder of how fast things can change. Had Nylander suffered an ankle injury, he could’ve been out for weeks or longer. The top-six would need to be adjusted. Most of the season, John Tavares, who played with Nylander, would’ve had to adjust to a new right winger for the playoffs. Injuries happen; it’s a risk every time a player steps on the ice. That risk seems more acceptable when the team tries to clinch a playoff spot and win the division. The Maple Leafs have accomplished both of those feats. Now they have two relatively meaningless games before the playoffs.
Give Them an Ice Bath and Wrap them in Bubble Wrap
Put yourself in Sheldon Keefe’s position. What would you do? I’ll bet many say they would rest everyone. It might be the easy answer, but Keefe is anxious about too much downtime. “I’m not overly concerned with the rest factor,” said Keefe, “if anything, I’m a little more concerned with a potential large gap between our games and the start of playoffs and increasing that gap if we were to sit anyone.” The head coach says the staff has been monitoring the players closely. They are having a conversation with everyone to determine who needs time off. “There’s a lot of other things we’ll consider looking at the health of the team and health of players. We don’t want anybody pushing through anything unnecessary at this stage.”
Keefe is trying to balance two things. On the one hand, he wants his team well rest and healthy. But on the other, he wants a cohesive team that is riding momentum into the first round. “Sometimes if you take too much time off and there is too far of a gap and then all of a sudden you jump into the playoffs and the play is going at a whole other level and you haven’t played in a week or more…. That kind of defeats the whole purpose and works against you,” said Keefe.
Players Can Lose a Step
All-season players talked about a slow start when returning from injury or prolonged time away from the ice. Nick Foligno called his first period with Toronto “awful” after not playing for nearly ten days. Even players who have missed a game or two have said it takes a couple of shifts to get their game legs back. Toronto has just two games this week, and then it’s unknown when they will play game one of the playoffs. “I think our schedule the last little while hasn’t been overly demanding,” said Keefe, “it’s probably lighter than it’s been all season for us, and this week coming, despite being on the road, it’s a lighter schedule.” This topic was discussed in the Maple Leafs Lounge. Check out the video below.
Losing a step or two for a few shifts is one thing, but losing momentum and confidence to start the postseason is another. Keefe said he is a believer in momentum but thinks it’s been building all season and confidence within his team.
There are risks to both sides of the dilemma. Rest the players, and they lose an edge, play them, and they get injured. By now, Keefe has become accustomed to every decision being second-guessed. But this decision, if a star player goes down and misses the playoffs, could haunt him for a long time.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.