A hard hit, a grimacing Auston Matthews and a lengthy spell without one of the best players in the game.
For the second time inside a calendar year, a bone-crushing hit from an opponent will see the Toronto Maple Leafs superstar miss an extended period of time with a shoulder injury. The Maple Leafs announced on Monday that Matthews, the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals and 16 points, will miss a minimum of four weeks.
The Leafs play 15 times over the next four weeks, so the impact of Matthews’ latest ailment is well-pronounced.
He’s been one of the best players in the NHL to start the season and a big reason why the Leafs have marched out to an 8-3-0 record.
The silver lining? Toronto faired reasonably well without Matthews during that 10-game chunk last season, going 5-3-2. And that was when they didn’t have the refuge of John Tavares in the lineup.
Every single Maple Leafs player will tell you that you don’t replace a talent like Matthews, and that is 100 percent accurate.
The Leafs looked better equipped this time to do so this time around. You only have to look at Saturday’s game after Matthews was hit for some proof. Down 2-0 to the Jets, Toronto engineered a third-period comeback with three unanswered goals to take the game 3-2.
That said, Toronto’s depth is about to get tested.
Leafs With/Without Matthews in 17-18 With Without 38-19-5 Rec 11-7-2 3.45 GF/G 3.15 2.9 GA/G 2.6 38/172 PP 18/52 22.1 PP% 34.6
And what becomes of the William Nylander talks now? Perhaps a little more leverage for the Swede?
Nylander still remains unsigned by the club, who could now use his scoring prowess. It’s unlikely the Leafs cave to his demands, but it has to be a little more appealing given the current circumstances.
NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.
They went No. 1 and 2 overall in the 2016 NHL Draft and have played important roles in how both of their franchises have turned around their fortunes. So if you were an NHL general manager building a franchise, who would you take? Patrik Laine or Auston Matthews? The PHT staff weighed in.
LEAHY: The Laine vs. Matthews debate is the new Ovechkin vs. Crosby one that began with the 2005-06 NHL season when both entered the league and began their dominance. You have Laine, who is the new-age Ovechkin and is going to win a handful of Rocket Richard Trophies by the time he’s done and give the Jets at least 40 goals a year for the next decade plus. Then there’s Matthews, your Crosby in this scenario, who will collect plenty of Art Ross Trophies and maybe, like Sid’s done twice already, grab a few Richard’s as well.
So if you’re a GM and you have to start a franchise around one, the prevailing thought is you go with the center. Like in soccer where you want a strong spine down the middle of the pitch, an elite No. 1 center can take a team to another level. Think of how many NHL teams currently don’t have such a player and are suffering. Matthews is a player who can make his teammates around him better and while both are young have plenty of improvements to be made in their games, I would stick with the center.
It comes down to preference. Laine’s goal scoring will go unmatched over the next decade. Matthews could threaten a goal scoring crown, but ultimately develop into the better two-way player. The game of hockey wins as long as these two young stars are healthy and productive.
O’BRIEN: As much as I want to go the contrarian route and go for the funny quotes and funny facial hair of Laine, it’s got to be Matthews.
In most instances, you’d be obsessing about Laine’s goal-scoring, yet Matthews isn’t far behind in that regard. While Laine’s shot talent is almost unrivaled, Matthews has a killer release, and the Maple Leafs stars makes up some of the deficit with the sheer volume of pucks he sends on net.
One thing that got lost in the furor of Matthews’ four-goal debut was how complete his game was, right off the bat. Matthews has been doing so much damage at even-strength, so now that he’s getting more power-play time with the top unit, the sky’s the limit. As a reliable center, Matthews simply does more than Laine from an all-around perspective, as the Finn is, well, an unfinished project.
The beauty of both players is that, as much as they’ve shown already, we still haven’t seen their ceilings. Like I mentioned, Matthews hasn’t always gotten the top PP reps, and he could conceivably become a 20-minute workhorse. Laine scored his 44 goals in just 16:29 TOI per game last season, which feels pretty much impossible in the modern era.
Ultimately, you really can’t go wrong with either option. While this isn’t as fun as Fortnite-barbing, the truth is: when in doubt, choose the center.
GRETZ: Laine is an incredible talent and is the franchise-altering player the Jets needed to drag themselves out of perpetual mediocrity. Before he arrived they were always a team that had a lot of decent individual talent, but no piece to bring it all together.
Laine has been that player, and while he is not Alex Ovechkin (no one is), he makes that sort of impact and will probably be the player to end his run at the top of the goal-scoring list in one of these upcoming seasons.
Having said that, the choice still has to be Matthews. Like James said, when you are starting a rebuild and when most things are equal you always take the center over the winger. That is where championship teams are built, and while I’m not yet sold on Matthews’ all-around game (he still has some work to do 5-on-5), he is just as dominant as Laine is from a goal-scoring perspective and as a center is probably more likely to make the players around him better as a playmaker. Ultimately they are both going to be top-five talents for the better part of their careers and dominate the league, but I think you have to take Matthews.
ALFIERI: Let’s start by pointing out that both these players are terrific. They’re both elite when it comes to putting the puck in the back of the opponent’s net, but I’ve got to go with Matthews. First, I’ll always favor a center over a winger. Anybody who plays that position at a high level can impact the game more than an elite winger. There’s a ton of responsibilities both offensively and defensively that come with playing down the middle, and Matthews has shown that he’s capable of playing a complete game.
Many people assume that Laine is the better goalscorer (he might be), but Matthews scored 40 goals in his first year and he would have scored 40 again last year had he not missed 20 games. Although Laine has a wicked release, Matthews is able to change the angle of his shot at the last second, which makes him fool defenders and goaltenders on a nightly basis. That’s nothing short of incredible and not many players in the league are able to do what he does in that respect.
BILLECK: I’ve had the benefit of watching Patrik Laine every day for the past two and a bit years. He dropped 36 goals in his rookie season and then finished runner-up to Alex Ovechkin. He can score goals. Everyone knows that. He’s transformed the Winnipeg Jets power play into one of the best in the league. His unit is lethal and teams are forced to choose between Laine at the top of the circle and Mark Scheifele in the slot. Team’s don’t often choose right because there’s no right option. Pick your poison, but know they both kill.
Laine is elite. There’s no question. But when you’re building a team around a player, outside of Ovechkin, you’re going to choose a center. Whether it’s Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Patrice Bergeron or someone else, the spine of a team is important and having an elite, franchise center is a must for any team vying for a Stanley Cup. So the choice here is Auston Matthews, despite all the danger Laine brings.
Matthews is the better 5v5 player. He’s the better defender. He’s the better two-way player. And he scores in a similar fashion. Laine is an incredible talent, don’t get me wrong, but Matthews just does more at this point in his career. If Laine turns into Ovi later on, my opinion could change. But Matthews is the more complete package at the moment.
Pre-game coverage begins with a special on-site edition of NHL Live at 6 p.m. ET, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside analysts Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick, and NHL insider Bob McKenzie from True North Square outside of Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Pre-game coverage will feature an interview between Roenick and Laine, as well as interviews with Matthews and John Tavares.
Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick travels to Manitoba to call his first game in Winnipeg since Dec. 29, 1995, when he served as the New Jersey Devils play-by-play commentator. The Jets defeated the Devils, 5-3, courtesy of a five-goal third period which began with a power-play goal from then-Jets forward and Emrick’s current broadcast partner Eddie Olczyk. Olczyk played parts of five seasons with the Jets (1990-93 and 1994-96), as well parts of four seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs (1987-91).
In the second game of the Wednesday Night Hockey doubleheader, the Tampa Bay Lightning visit the Colorado Avalanche at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.
Maple Leafs looking for their ‘mojo’ after back-to-back losses
The sky is far from falling in Toronto, but Mike Babcock knows the secret of his Maple Leafs is finally out.
The Leafs dropped their second straight game for the first time this season on Saturday in a 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues.
That loss followed a 3-0 shutout defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier in the week, the first time Toronto’s dominant offense had been blanked this season.
There have been a few firsts over the past two games, but perhaps for every team in the league, there’s finally a blueprint out there on how to find success against Toronto.
The Leafs have constructed high-danger chance after high-danger chance since the start of the season (they’re third in the NHL with 92 of them) but over the past two games, they haven’t converted on any of them.
Toronto generated 20 high-danger opportunities over the two games but just couldn’t sort pucks into the back of the net in those contests.
Since getting zero goals off 20 chances over their first two games, Toronto had been on a tear, converting 10 goals off chances over their next five games in five-on-five scenarios.
In simpler speak, the likes of Auston Matthews and Co. haven’t been scoring at the same rates they were before their mini-slump here. The well has run dry when playing five-on-five right now and it’s been detrimental to Toronto’s success.
Babcock said after Saturday’s game that his team is finding out it’s hard to score in the NHL. And team’s adjust.
The better you are, the bigger the bullseye when another team takes the ice across from you. And the book on the Maple Leafs is that they’re fast, they transition well and they work well in space.
“The last couple nights, [we] haven’t won enough battles and races. You don’t feel very good about what’s going on,” Babcock told TSN on Sunday. “You have to get back to work, [and hopefully] let your ups be longer than your downs.”
Clog those lanes, play a little tighter and bog the game down seems to be doing the trick over the past two games.
Toronto’s schedule doesn’t get much easier with back-to-back games against the Winnipeg Jets in a home-and-home mini-series next week. The Jets won their second straight game for the first time this season and are beginning to find scoring from all four of their lines.
Winnipeg is a big and bruising team that can frustrate opposing offenses. Quickly righting the ship will be a stiff challenge in the coming days.
For the second straight game, a Montreal Canadiens prospect has been stretchered off the ice.
The latest incident took place Sunday and was the result of an ugly hit by Toronto Maple Leafs prospect forward Hudson Elynuik on Montreal defenseman Jarret Tyszka in the first period of the NHL Rookie Showdown tournament in Laval.
Disgusting hit from Elynuik that sends Jarret Tyszka head first into the boards, he's been given five and a game. pic.twitter.com/kCU7F1wnNv
Elyniuk was tossed from the game for checking from behind.
On Friday, Canadiens prospect Jake Evans was drilled by a high hit from Ottawa Senators defenseman Jonathan Aspirot. Evans fell backwards, smacking his head off the ice. He required a stretcher to get off the ice and was taken to the hospital before being released.
Tyszka was selected in the fifth round by the Canadiens in 2017 and has played the past three seasons in the Western Hockey League with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Tyszka is expected back in Seattle for his final season junior hockey.
Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.
49-26-7, 105 pts. (3rd in the Atlantic Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in seven games to the Boston Bruins, first round
Let’s start this off by quickly recounting last season’s Toronto Maple Leafs.
– Won some games
– Made the playoffs
– Got ousted from the playoffs in the first round
– Wallowed in offseason mode for a while
– Signed John Tavares
– Won the offseason
Do Toronto fans really care about last season at this point?
Call it a B.C. vs. A.D. sort of thing, only its B.J.T. and A.J.T. in this case (Before John Tavares and After John Tavares, for those not following the dating system bit).
He may not be the Messiah, nor the second coming, but signing John Tavares after a drawn out courting period instantly turned the Maple Leafs into a contender, and proved new general manager Kyle Dubas certainly has the chops for the gig he’s earned.
The Leafs were already a damn good hockey team beforehand, filled with young talent with the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Adding a veteran superstar in John Tavares only sped up Toronto’s velocity as they make their ascent to the top of the league.
In terms of the season, Toronto’s Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in the first round was disappointing after allowing four goals in the third period to lose 7-4. A bitter pill to swallow, surely, but also a valuable lesson for a young team on how difficult it is to close out a playoff series.
Toronto shut down in that third period, and they’ll need to learn to handle the ebbs and flows of playoff hockey, and not let the lows get as low as they did in that final frame.
Of course, last season was a giant leap forward for the Maple Leafs, at least in the regular season, where Toronto set a new franchise record with 49 wins and 105 points.
The playoffs were essentially the same story as the year before, losing in the first round, only that time to the Washington Capitals. Matthews lost his way in the series, getting just a single goal and a single assist in the series against the Bruins. And that Game 7 performance by Jake Gardiner was, well, horrible.
But it wasn’t all on Gardiner. Their defense in the series was poor all around, and depth at that position is an over-arching concern as the Leafs roll into the new season. Improving on the back end would certainly help their goaltending out, too. Frederik Anderson saw enough shots all season for two starting goaltenders, and his .896 save percentage in the first round wasn’t good enough.
The Maple Leafs have already ripped off the rear-view mirror though. They went big with Tavares and now have some of the loftiest expectations in the NHL. It should be an exciting season in The Six. Perhaps that 51-season Stanley Cup drought could be nearing an end.
Now, how are they going to fit Nylander under the cap?
An improvement on defense is what the Maple Leafs need, and they might have it in Dermott. Smart, two-way, puck-moving defenseman that plays well at both ends of the ice. He played 37 games with the Leafs last season and also helped the Marlies win the Calder Cup, along with being named an AHL All-Star. There’s a lot of hope being placed in Dermott, who could be in line for a top-four spot this season with the Maple Leafs.
Another defenseman that the Leafs are putting a lot of stock into. Liljegren decided to make the jump from Sweden to North America last year, suiting up with the Marlies. It took him some time to adjust to the professional game in the American Hockey League, but now seems he’s ready to take another step in his progression.
“If you play over here, you have to make fast plays and move the puck quick,” Liljegren told The Canadian Press. “That’s something I developed over the year. I feel comfortable now.”
• Andreas Johnsson, LW/RW, 23, Toronto Marlies (AHL) – 2013 seventh-round pick
Alright, how many seventh-round draft picks have gone on to become Calder Cup MVPs? The answer is out there somewhere (by this I mean I have no idea), but Johnsson is now on that list. Taken 202nd overall in 2013, Johnsson paced the Calder Cup playoffs with 14 assists and 24 points to help the Marlies to the title.