Maple Leafs News & Roster Moves: Matthews, Nylander, Campbell & Thornton

The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Vancouver Canucks are scheduled to play tonight, but it took a long time coming. The Canucks haven’t played in almost a month because the team was knocked down and almost out by the virulent COVID-19 virus. In the end – and we all hope it is for the team – 22 Canucks’ players and four staff members and many members of their families tested positive. Only by Wednesday did the number of players on the COVID-19 list fall to seven.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Matthews, Galchenyuk & Hyman for Selke

The Maple Leafs will face a gutted Canucks’ team. Starting goalie Thatcher Demko and Tyler Motte won’t suit up because of COVID. Elias Pettersson is out with an injury and there are rumors the team might play it safe and shut him down for the remainder of the season. Many other Canucks’ players are less than physically-ready for the game.

What happened to the Vancouver Canucks’ hockey team is first of all sad and scary for the players and especially their families; however, it’s also a lesson in just how horrible the P.1 coronavirus variant is. Second, it’s a lesson to the rest of us to be diligent about our own safety and responsible not to put those with whom we come in contact in risk.

Canucks general manager Jim Benning said it became clear how hard the coronavirus had hit once players resumed skating this week in limited numbers.

The Canucks held their first team practice on Thursday; and, afterwards, general manager Jim Benning noted, “We’ve still got some guys that aren’t feeling great. These are world-class athletes; they’re feeling OK until they put their equipment on and they have to skate. … Everyone’s working to do what’s right for the players, first and foremost, and for their families.”

Although for me it’s tough to get really excited about the game given the circumstances, the Maple Leafs are coming off a three-game losing streak that has seen their lead in the North Division dwindle to only three points over the Winnipeg Jets. Because the team starts a three-game series against those same Jets this week, it’s important to win this game.

In the remainder of this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Roster Moves, I’ll try to help Maple Leafs’ fans stay up-to-date with what’s happening to the team prior to game time tonight.

Item One: Auston Matthews Looks to Be Back

Auston Matthews, who missed Thursday’s game with an upper-body (wrist) injury, was a full participant in Saturday’s practice. He was back in his normal spot between Mitch Marner and newcomer Alex Galchenyuk on the top line. Still, head coach Sheldon Keefe expressed caution and didn’t commit that Matthews would be in the lineup for tonight’s game and noted that the team would play wait-and-see before a final determination would be made. That said, Matthews reportedly skated at full speed without limitations.  

Item Two: William Nylander Will Play on Sunday

After being quarantined for nine days because he was in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, William Nylander practiced with the team on Saturday. He’s expected to play tonight. Note that during that time Nylander never tested positive, but the move was a wise precaution.

William Nylander, Morgan Reilly
Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly celebrates with teammate William Nylander. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hans Deryk)

Yeserday Nylander noted, “We’d got back from the road (April 6 after a trip to Calgary) and I met somebody who tested positive the next day.”

Nylander spoke about his isolation: “I had to isolate for nine days with nine days of tests. I was worried about me getting (COVID-19) and giving it to the guys. Over those few days, I was pretty nervous, but thank god nobody got it. That was the No. 1 thing I was worried about.” (“Nylander back with Maple Leafs after COVID scare, Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun, 17/04/21).

Because he participated in a full practice on the team’s second line on Saturday, it seems the team is gearing up and expecting him to play. In his 39 games on the season, Nylander’s scored 13 goals and 17 assists (for 30 points).

Item Three: Jack Campbell Gets a Chance at Personal Redemption

As always, I appreciate the perspective that readers of my posts put on things. When I suggested that Jack Campbell had an uncharacteristically poor game, in discussions after the post readers came to his support. One reminded me that Johnny Bower once was on the losing end of an 11-0 game during a season when the Maple Leafs won a Stanley Cup. Another broke down the three goals Campbell gave up prior to being pulled and noted that only one was Campbell’s fault.

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

As always, I want to thank those readers – and others – for their great commentary and thoughtful additions to the posts I write. Most are far more knowledgeable than I am about the Maple Leafs and these additions to my work add to any insight that I might bring. It’s a great group of Maple Leafs fans.

Campbell’s such a different kettle of fish as a player in the way he takes responsibility for his own play – sometimes to a fault, I think. I have a feeling he’s probably been beating himself up for a few days and is chomping at the bit for another chance to play. He gets that chance tonight against the Canucks.

After a record-setting 11-straight wins, Campbell’s has now lost two in succession. The 29-year-old career backup still maintains a solid goals-against-average of 2.19 and a save percentage of .922 on the season. As noted, this season’s Canucks team (a) hasn’t played in more than three weeks and (b) has been a shell of last season’s team that went on a prolonged Stanley Cup run. So far this season, Vancouver had averaged only 2.62 goals per game (ranked 22nd in the NHL) before their season was paused last month as the team battled COVID-19.

Item Four: Maple Leafs Are Trying Big Changes to the Power Play

As anyone knows, the Maple Leafs’ power play has been anemic for many games and has only produced one goal in the last 41 chances. That’s just over two percent of the time. Yikes. However, obviously head coach Sheldon Keefe is determined that lack of success is going to stop.

Related: Today in Hockey History: April 18

His plan seems to be to load up the first unit of the power play with the team’s top guns. During Saturday’s practice in Vancouver, the Maple Leafs had these five players together – Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly. The second unit consisted of Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton, Alex Galchenyuk, and Jake Muzzin.

That might seem a bit desperate, but I love the change. I hope it creates a bit of a contest between the two units to see which one can produce the most. Other than Muzzin, who I like on the same unit with Simmonds because he’s the best at throwing hard shots on net and Simmonds is the best at invading the goalie’s space, the second unit is a bit rag tag (in a good way) with oldies like Simmonds, Spezza, and Thornton and a reclamation project like Galchenyuk.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Call me out for wishful thinking, but I’m predicting Joe Thornton will score tonight as a member of the Maple Leafs’ second-unit power play. Somehow, given that his long-time teammate Patrick Marleau last night tied Gordie Howe’s record for NHL games played, it would seem a perfect addition of two records in two days.

Bobby Hull #9 of the Winnipeg Jets and Gordie Howe #9 of the Houston Aeros
Two of the NHL’s best in 1976: Bobby Hull #9 of the Winnipeg Jets and Gordie Howe #9 of the Houston Aeros (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)

Here’s some odd history. Should he score tonight (or whenever), Thornton would be the eldest Maple Leafs’ player to ever score a goal. On Jan. 16, Thornton’s goal against the Ottawa Senators made him (at 41 years and 189 days) the oldest forward in Maple Leafs franchise history ever to score a goal. That record had been held by new Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis (who set it at 41 years, 33 days old on April 3, 2004, also against the Senators).

Related: Remembering Borje Salming: “King” of Maple Leafs’ Defensemen

Although Thornton is the oldest forward to score wearing the Blue & White, he’s not the oldest player to score a goal in team history. That would be defenseman Allan Stanley, who set the record (at 41 years and 252 days) on Nov. 8, 1967. That was the season the Maple Leafs’ won their last Stanley Cup. Oddly, it was Stanley’s only goal in his final season as a Maple Leafs’ player.

Considering this will likely be Thornton’s last Stanley Cup run and last season as a player, that’s interesting context. Let’s hope it isn’t his last goal.

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