Updated: Nov 5, 2018
The 8-3-0 Toronto Maple Leafs are off to a strong start, largely in part due to the success of superstar Auston Matthews. With 7 straight multi-point games to start the season, Matthews had Leafs' fans buzzing with excitement and expectations as to what was in store for this year.
Sure, his scoring pace has slowed, going the previous 4 games without a point. However his 16 points through 11 games was still good for 6th best in the league. Matthews' start was so impressive that even after his mini-slump, he was still on pace for 75 goals and 119 points (Yes, on pace, we all know it wasn't going to happen).
All these projections were thrown out the window Monday morning, as the Leafs announced that AM34 would miss at least the next 4 weeks with a separated shoulder; sustained on a hit from Jacob Trouba of the Jets on Saturday night. Matthews looked shaken up on the play, and left the game almost immediately after.
The hit, there was nothing dirty or deliberate about it. Trouba did exactly what a 6 foot 3, 205 pound, defenceman getting paid $5.5 million is supposed to do when a star player has the puck inches in front of your net; finish your check. Matthews said the same when questioned about the play, saying Trouba didn't do anything wrong, the hit just caught him at a weird angle.
The thing that sucks the most about the injury is simply the fact that Auston Matthews won't be playing. One of the best young players in the world, the star of the league's biggest market, a player who has started to show his personality more and more, and the modern face of USA hockey; won't be on the ice. Aside from Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, Matthews is the NHL player that literally everyone knows who he is. The league is simply better and more fun with him in it.
The Leafs… they'll be just fine. Anytime your franchise centre gets hurt, and your top 2 centreman are still John Tavares and Nazem Kadri, you know your team is a wagon. Sure, the lines will be put in the blender, and you lose some scoring, but the Leafs have some of the best forward depth in the league. Guys like Andreas Johnsson, Connor Brown, and certainly Nazem Kadri, will get more opportunities to prove themselves, and Kasperi Kapanen will be the beneficiary of playing in Matthews' spot on the top powerplay unit.
Are the Leafs better with Matthews in the lineup? Absolutely. Are the Leafs still a very good team without him? Yes.
If they had to go a very prolonged amount of time without Matthews, I would be a little more worried. However I'm sure Tavares, Kadri, Mitch Marner and league leading defenceman Morgan Rielly can pick up some of the offense that they will lose in Matthews' absence.
If the Leafs can't score enough to fill the void Matthews leaves, then maybe they'll come to terms with William Nylander, who has posted back-to-back 61 point seasons. Not to get into the Nylander situation again, but perhaps this makes Kyle Dubas & co. move the needle closer to $7 or $7.5 million a year for the Swedish sniper. I hope it doesn't climb that high, but who knows.
Lastly, I like the way Babcock juggled his lines for Monday's contest against the Calgary Flames. Hyman-Tavares-Kapanen makes sense as he keeps Zach and Tavares together, and keeps some skill there with Kapanen. Tavares carried an entire line for much of his time with the Islanders, so I'm sure Hyman and Kapanen will be just fine for him. Marleau-Kadri-Marner was a line that clicked last year, hopefully they can rekindle some chemistry. Johnsson-Lindholm-Brown is obviously less threatening of a 3rd line than when Kadri is on it, but it gives all 3 an opportunity to shine. Ennis-Gauthier-Leivo as a 4th line has actually performed relatively well, and can create more offense than most 4th lines in the show.