Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Thornton, Matthews, Campbell & Simmonds

Tonight the two top teams in the North Division meet when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Winnipeg Jets. Both need a victory to get back in the win column. After dominating the Edmonton Oilers, the Maple Leafs went into Vancouver and immediately raised the hopes of the Canucks for their season by surprisingly losing two straight games. The Jets are coming off one of those nights when nothing went right and they lost 7-1 to the Montreal Canadiens.

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That said, both teams seem to be cruising toward the playoffs. It’s probably too early to suggest this is a crucial series, but consider what happens should the Maple Leafs lose all three games to the Jets. They’d still have the best record in the North Division, but it would sure generate fans’ conversations. On the other hand, if the Maple Leafs won all three games, they would go 13 points up on the Jets. Then there’s trouble on Portage and Main.

In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll look into some of the stories out of the organization to help fans stay in the loop about what’s happening. Specifically, there’s lingering bad news about Auston Matthews’ troublesome wrist injury; however, there’s some good news about goalie Jack Campbell and forward Wayne Simmonds returning.

Item One: How’s Joe Thornton’s Time with the Maple Leafs Going? Good, Thanks

One of the small things I’ve come to enjoy this season is watching Joe Thornton’s interviews after games. He simply seems to be enjoying himself most of the time. It’s pretty clear he likes being a Maple Leafs’ player. To date, Thornton has scored three goals and eight assists (for 11 points) in 14 games.

Joe Thornton Toronto Maple Leafs
Joe Thornton, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

In an article earlier today by Terry Koshan from the Toronto Sun, Thornton was quoted as noting what he appreciates about the team.

Specifically, “We compete hard every night. We have a chance to win every night, special teams have been great up to this point (not so much the penalty kill), a lot of positives. As a whole, the team is really gelling. We enjoy spending time with each other.” (from “Maple Leafs’ Joe Thornton happy coming up to season’s halfway mark,” Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 09/03/21).

Item Two: Auston Matthews Wrist Injury Is Reshaping His On-ice Play

Earlier in the month I had a sense from watching the team’s player movements that the organization was concerned that Auston Matthews’ might not be able to play for a time. At that time, I wrote a post suggesting why the Maple Leafs might be preparing for him to be out for a while. Fortunately, that wasn’t fully the case and Matthews only missed two games.

However, yesterday head coach Sheldon Keefe admitted that Matthews’ wrist injury was impacting his shot and that the team had changed the way it plays in response to the injury. 

Keefe noted that Matthew might be having some trouble “dealing with the mental effect of not being 100% himself.” That’s an interesting and perhaps revealing thing for Keefe to say; and, reading between the lines, it might offer a sense of what drives Matthews. He wants to be the best player he can be; and, perhaps – and I’m just speculating here – he’s getting a bit frustrated because he hasn’t been able to play as well as he knows he can because he’s injured.

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

What we may see here is something that sounds like both a Keefe report to the public and a pep talk for Matthews. First, he’s taking the opportunity to openly praise Matthews for what he can do and encouraging him not to get too down about what he can’t do.

I’m also thinking that Keefe is likely asking fans to be patient with Matthews. Specifically, Keefe is admitting to everyone that Matthews’ timing is a bit off. At the same time, his comments are announcing to fans that he believes Matthews is still playing well, is still generating chances and shots, and – although he’s not close to 100% physically – he’s still of great value to the team. Keefe’s agenda is to suggest that Matthews might not be as good as we’ve come to expect; however, he’s still quite amazing.

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Keefe admits the team has changed the way it plays to help mediate Matthews’ injury. Specifically, “We’ve moved him around on the power play as a result of that.”

Keefe also noted that Matthews was not looking “as comfortable when he’s shooting, but he’s showing he’s very good in a lot of other areas. It doesn’t seem to affect his ability to handle the puck or pass the puck. … He’s found ways to generate chances and shots, he’s made plays for his linemates. He’s brought a lot of positive things to us.”

Obviously, Keefe retains the belief that – even injured – Matthews is one of his team’s best options. Matthews’ time on ice hasn’t been impacted that much. He’d been averaging just under 22 minutes (21:54) of time on the ice during his first 20 games; and, since the injury he’s averaging just over 21 minutes (21:11). That’s basically only one shift difference.

Matthews admits that his wrist has not yet healed. And his statistics corroborate that’s the case. He hasn’t scored a goal in five games and has no points in three games. Apparently, Matthews has been playing hurt most of the season. Given that thought, that Matthews leads the NHL with 18 goals in 23 games is amazing.  

Item Three: Jack Campbell Might Be Getting Close to Returning

Injured backup goalie Jack Campbell practiced on Monday. In fact, coach Keefe reported Campbell had another “real positive” day. That said, although his recovery is progressing, the Maple Leafs’ goalie remains day-to-day in terms of when he’ll be able to return to the active lineup. 

Item Four: Wayne Simmonds Case Has Been Removed

With Matthews’ wrist giving him trouble, it’s nice to hear that another player’s wrist is improving. This week, coach Keefe reported that Wayne Simmonds’ cast had been removed. Simmonds suffered a broken wrist during a game on Feb. 6 against Vancouver. He was expected to be out for six weeks, and he looks to be sticking to that timeline.

Wayne Simmonds Toronto Maple Leafs
Wayne Simmonds, Toronto Maple Leafs Right Wing (Photo by Steven Kingsman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Keefe noted further that it was his “understanding is the bone is healed and it’s just a matter of him rehabbing, getting full function back and comfortable handling and shooting pucks.”

Simmonds is doing just that. Keefe noted that Simmonds was making strong progress and was practicing on his own. The 32-year-old is concentrating on his conditioning by working to get into game shape before rejoining the team. Maple Leafs’ fans should expect that he’ll likely need two more weeks before he returns to game action.

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The Maple Leafs miss his physical presence, especially in front of the crease on the power play. Although in recent games both Thornton and Zach Hyman have become Simmonds’ clones in the crease during power plays, when he’s healthy no one’s in Simmonds’ league. He has scored five goals on 20 shots in 12 games this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman
Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Item Five: Mikko Lehtonen Has Been Promoted from the Taxi Squad

Mikko Lehtonen had been on the team’s taxi squad for five games and hasn’t played in a game since Feb. 24. Although there’s a chance he’ll be in the lineup against the Jets tonight, he might only play as an injury replacement. It seems he’s not yet ready for NHL prime time and there’s no reason to push it.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The team plays four games in six days starting tonight. They play three against the Jets, ending on Saturday. They then travel to Ottawa for a back-to-back Sunday game. Then there’s four days off before playing the Calgary Flames at home on March 19.

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Given what we know about Matthews’ wrist, it’s likely that all eyes will be on his play this week. If all goes well, he’ll have four days off between the Senators’ game on Sunday and the Flames’ game the following Friday night.

Fans can only hope that, by the end of that rest period, his wrist will be mended completely.