Mike Babcock doesn’t like to field too many questions about Auston Matthews. Not when he’s playing well, not when he’s playing poorly and certainly not when he’s not playing at all.
But that’s been the reality for Babcock throughout this young season. Matthews will miss his seventh game of the year on Thursday, and his third straight with an upper-body injury that has sidelined him since Saturday’s win over Pittsburgh. Toronto is 5-1-0 overall without Matthews, but 1-1-0 since he’s gone down this second time.
“I know you guys [miss him], that’s all you talk about or ask me about every day,” Babcock said. “The team is playing tonight, we plan on winning. I think that’s really important. I’ve coached in the league a long time. We’ve had players injured every year and that’s the way it is. Now, do you want to have all hands on deck? Absolutely. But when you don’t, that’s where you find players.”
The opportunity to step up and take on a bigger role is open to each of the Leafs’ players, but Toronto has struggled to generate offence over their last two games. Over that span, the Leafs have scored just three goals and been outshot by a combined 80-45 by the Edmonton Oilers and Flyers.
“We miss Auston every day. Obviously he’s one of the best players in the league,” said Tyler Bozak. “He’s a big hole to fill and one you can’t fill with one guy; everyone kind of has to step up. Definitely we’re a worse team without him in our lineup, but we have found ways to win without him and we have to keep that going until he’s healthy and ready to go.”
When that will be is anyone’s guess. Matthews is with the Leafs on their current three-game road trip, which ends on Friday in Detroit. It seems unlikely Matthews will made his return without a practice or skate in between, which means the Leafs will also have to tackle their second back-to-back in as many weeks without the 20-year-old’s offensive prowess.
“The hard part is every day everyone is asking you how you’re doing and stuff like that,” added Bozak. “But it’s all part of the game. Everyone is going to get injuries throughout their career. You just have to stay positive. He’s a guy who works extremely hard, and will come back even better than he was before. We’re excited whenever he does come back to have him.”
The Leafs’ loss to Philadelphia was only really by one goal (plus an empty netter), but the mood around the team was as if they had been blown out.
There was an unmistakable feeling amongst the players that they let at least one point slip away by allowing issues to fester for too long. Until Tuesday, the Leafs had won five of their previous six games, and confidence was high even if their stats hadn’t been good.
As soon as that winning stopped, it became impossible to ignore the glaring deficiency that is Toronto’s lack of offensive zone time. The Leafs’ possession totals over their last two games were 39 per cent (versus Edmonton) and 43 per cent (versus Philadelphia).
“There’s a number of things – faceoffs, execution in the d-zone, speed through the neutral zone, hanging onto the puck in the offensive zone,” said Babcock of what’s hindering offensive zone time. “I don’t know which one of those you want to talk to, but I only have so much time before the (team) meal.”
The biggest factor in the Leafs survival without their offence firing has been their goaltending. Frederik Andersen owns a .948 save percentage over the last month that paces all starters in the league in that span. Backup Curtis McElhinney has a .951 save-percentage in two starts over the same four-week stretch. Subconsciously or not, the Leafs became too dependent on good goaltending to bail them out.
“We’re relying on [them] too much to save our butts in most of our games,” said Marner. “So we want to get more o-zone play. We haven’t been doing that as much of late. We want to be a team that doesn’t sit back like that. We gave them opportunities and they didn’t miss on them.”
Andersen has faced 214 shots over his last six starts, an average of 35.6 per game. While he’s been terrific since the start of November, what the Leafs require of their goalie lately is perfection. Andersen didn’t deliver that on Tuesday, essentially causing a goal when he misplayed the puck on a clearing attempt that ultimately sent the disc back behind him.
Bozak joked that it’s natural for goalies to enjoy seeing a lot of shots, but the Leafs could stand to take a little of the pressure off.
“They’ve given us a chance to win every night,” he said. “But if we’re able to limit those opportunities – the Grade-A scoring chances – we’re going to have a better opportunity to win.”
Babcock has been breaking out his blender less frequently lately, but he did make one minor adjustment at morning skate ahead of facing the Wild: Marner moved up to the top line with Patrick Marleau and Zach Hyman, while Connor Brown moved down to play with James van Riemsdyk and Bozak.
It’s nothing out of the ordinary this season for either right winger to get a look on a different line, but it does come just when Marner seemed to be finding a groove offensively. He’s produced four assists in his last three games on what looks to be an upswing.
“I’m feeling better now,” he said. “Just trying to get more chances, help out defensively more and I think just start maybe pushing the pace a bit more on offence and create more chances and hold onto the puck a little bit more.”
Marner has seen time next to Marleau before when Babcock was experimenting with combinations earlier in the season. Along with Matthews, Marner and Marleau have formed a tight bond off the ice as well since the start of the year. Even after morning skate on Thursday, Marleau popped his head out into the dressing room to check on Marner before leaving so they could go to the team bus together.
If anyone can help Marner keep the positive momentum going, it’s Marleau.
“He’s got a lot of speed, obviously he’s played a long time and he’s got a lot of veteran poise out there,” Marner said. “There’s a calm thing about his game that’s passed onto others. Any time you get to line up with him on your line, it’s pretty spectacular to see him work.”
Some games end up being a turning point for a team. The Minnesota Wild found that in their first contest against the Leafs.
Toronto won the game on Nov. 8 in their building, 4-2. Minnesota has gone 11-4-1 since that loss, and head coach Bruce Boudreau felt it was knowing they deserved more out of that meeting in Toronto that helped adjust the Wild’s mindset about what they were capable of.
“It seemed to get us going,” he said. “We played a good game where we thought we could have had a better result. We played better the next night, and I think since that date we’re like [11-4-1] so it was a good jump-start for us.”
The Wild do have history on their side as they welcome Toronto in – the Leafs haven’t won a game in St. Paul since March 22, 2011. Only two current Leafs players skated for the team in that contest (Bozak and Nazem Kadri).
One current Leaf Boudreau knows very well is Andersen, having coached him while they were both in the Anaheim Ducks organization. Back then, Andersen ended up being used in regular tandem with Jonas Hiller and then John Gibson. Boudreau isn’t surprised the netminder has flourished in his expanded role with the Leafs.
“I remember telling Mike [Babcock] and Lou [Lamoriello] at the [2016 Entry Draft] when they traded for him, I said, ‘You guys don’t know it yet, but you’ve got a real winner there,’” Boudreau said. “I think Freddie is great. He’s had a couple rough starts at the beginning of seasons there in Toronto, but overall he’s a guy you can count on. He’s such a big, strong body that he can play 60, 65 games.”
In just five days, the Leafs will mark the official 100th anniversary of the team with their Next Century Game at 2 p.m. on Dec. 19. As a Toronto native, Boudreau didn’t hide his affection for the franchise as it prepares to hit an important milestone.
“Born in Toronto, I got to watch them on TV since the early 1960s from [television host] Ward Cornell right through until today,” he said. “The Leafs are an institution in Canada and still a team I watch every chance I get to this day. They’re you’re favourite team growing up, they’re you’re favourite team when it doesn’t mean anything to us to want to win. I think their history is proud and great and I don’t think Canadian hockey would be anything near what it is without them.”
* Projected lineup vs. Minnesota: