Maple Leafs’ Roster Complicated by Auston Matthews Injury

When Toronto Maple Leafs’ star center Auston Matthews will be ready to actually practice and play is presently up in the air. On August 13, the Maple Leafs announced that Matthews underwent wrist surgery that week, and would be out for  “at least” six weeks. Note our emphasis on “at least.”  It could be longer.  

Related: Maple Leafs Season Might Hinge on Austin Matthews’ Recovery

Tomorrow will be exactly six weeks since the announcement was made. Yesterday, as the Maple Leafs training camp opened, it was announced that Matthews has been placed on injury reserve and that the team expected him back for the first game of the season. The tone was “not to worry.”

In one sense, injury reserve is not to be confused with Long Term Injury Reserve, where a player must be sidelined for a certain length of time. In “regular” injury reserve, a player could be activated at any time. 

What we do know is that Matthews will not be participating in any on-ice activities with the team, be it scrimmages or exhibition games; however, he will be skating on his own. No timeline has been set for his return; but, as noted, he’s expected to be ready for the Maple Leafs first regular season game against the Montreal Canadiens on October 13. 

Is Matthews’ Late Return a Setback for the Maple Leafs?

Not only, as we have noted previously, does this news make us wonder how healthy Matthews will be to start the season, we also have to wonder how effective he’ll be. Matthews has always been a hot starter and is jokingly called “Mr. October” (a tip of the cap to baseball’s Reggie Jackson who played well during baseball’s playoffs, which happened in October) by some media. 

Related: Canadiens-Maple Leafs Season Opener Is Missed Opportunity

Matthews’ missing training camp also complicates things for the Maple Leafs in another way. Specifically, it makes it difficult for the team to settle on filling a key spot in the team’s top six. Just who will start the season on the Matthews’ left-wing and partner with right-winger Mitch Marner to become the team’s top line?

Matthews’ Injury Impacts Choosing a Left-Winger for the Top Line

From the outside, it seems that the Maple Leafs have a large (excessive?) number of players who are auditioning for the coveted left-wing role with the dynamic twosome. The usual suspects include Nick Ritchie, Michael Bunting, Alex Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, and Nick Robertson. In addition, one has to think that PTO invitees Josh Ho-Sang and Nikita Gusev are two players who could also get a good look as well.  

Alexander Kerfoot Toronto Maple Leafs
Alexander Kerfoot, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

All these players will have to somehow compete for a spot alongside Matthews without actually being able to play alongside Matthews. That’s interesting. It would be like finding a doubles partner for figure skater Tessa Virtue without the skater being able to skate with Tessa Virtue.

Obviously, the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff will be able to determine who they think is the best left winger in camp and the one who will match the skillset and intangibles needed to play that position – on a line with Matthews and Marner; however, until that player gets to actually play with Matthews and Marner, there’s no guarantee he’ll be the right match for Matthews left wing. Preseason games could have been that time.

Related: Revisiting the Capitals’ Disastrous Jagr Trade

Chemistry always plays a big part in building a good forward line. Until players actually have a chance to play together, there’s no way to know for sure if they’re a good match.

The NHL Season Will Be 82 Games Long, Still a Slow Start Isn’t Good

Hopefully, it appears likely the team will have a full 82-game schedule to figure out the best option to be the left winger on that top line. On the down side, it’s better not to have a revolving door of wingers on your top line. That might tend to bring down the other players’ effectiveness and production. The sooner things get settled, the better for the team.

Michael Bunting
Michael Bunting is trying out for a top-six spot on the Maple Leafs [photo: Terry Wilson/OHL Images]

One other thing that complicates matters further is that every player the Maple Leafs have acquired to challenge for that position will have to clear waivers if it’s decided they don’t fit the team in a lesser role. Although we’re throwing out a worst case scenario, it’s possible that a player who might have been a good fit for Matthews will be long gone – lost to waivers – without ever having played a single game with Matthews.

Last Season, It Would Have Been Easier: This Isn’t Last Season

Obviously, we aren’t saying it will be impossible for the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff to figure out the best player to fit into that left-wing spot on the top line. However, we are saying that – at this very moment as the team enters this year’s training camp – Matthews’ injury changes things. It will make the job of building the most productive Maple Leafs’ top line a little bit tougher. 

Related: Tkachuk Shows His Ignorance Discussing Maple Leafs’ Campbell Injury

Matthews’ wrist surgery would have been much easier to mediate last season with the incumbent “what’s his name” on the left side, but he’s no longer there. This season it’s a much bigger problem. How much of one we don’t know yet. 

Welcome to another season or Maple Leafs’ hockey.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]

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