Remember the good old days, when everyone was marvelling at how consistently healthy the Leafs were? It wouldn’t be unreasonable for some to believe the ever-competitive Leafs GM Kyle Dubas exploited another market inefficiency and invested in the NHL’s first Team Shaman, but in reality the Leafs’ injury fortunes were likely the result of a combination of luck, the team’s revered Sports Science & Performance division, and the team’s low-contact style of play. The numbers bear out this last point: Leafs have the third-lowest road hits-per-game since 2016-17 (road stats used here because some home arenas, like Scotiabank Arena, can sometimes be a little overzealous with their counting). Deep down Leafs fans knew that the Hockey Gods would rebalance the scales with a plague of injuries at some point. Enter the 2019-20 season, one of the most tumultuous this franchise has seen in over a decade, both due to off-ice distractions and on-ice performance issues.
The damage was early and often:
- Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott missed the first 19 and 14 games of the season respectively following offseason surgeries.
- John Tavares missed seven games with a broken finger, and it took months for his shot to return to normal.
- Mitch Marner missed 11 games with a leg injury after a weird fall and played inconsistently upon his return.
- Jake Muzzin missed 10 games with a broken foot, returned for 15 games, and sensing a lack of equilibrium, broke his hand blocking a shot late in the season.
- Morgan Rielly missed 23 games with a knee injury after playing what felt like the entire season with a noticeable snag in his stride.
- Andreas Johnsson struggled to find his game after missing 15 games with a leg injury, returned to a new coach behind the Leafs bench, then had to undergo season-ending (or so we thought?) surgery on his right knee.
- Ilya Mikheyev had his wrist slashed by a skate in the midst of an impressive rookie campaign.
Just two Leafs played all 70 games this season: Auston Matthews and Tyson Barrie. It felt like every time the Leafs got a guy back, someone else immediately went to the infirmary. Many of these injuries overlapped, causing chaos up and down the lineup as coaches tried to rebalance the lineup to account for newly lost players. As a result, the team struggled to establish much consistency or rhythm, with hardly anyone having consistent linemates to play with.
None of this is to say that the Leafs have had it the worst in the league. Other teams like Pittsburgh, Columbus and Colorado have been decimated by long-term injuries to their stars. In fact, the Toronto Star posted an article on March 1st about Toronto’s games lost to injury. Accounting for quality of player injured, the Leafs placed seventh-highest on a list compiled by ManGamesLost.com. Their round robin opponent for the 2019-20 playoffs, the Columbus Blue Jackets, will spare no sympathy for the Maple Leafs, considering they finished second on the same list.
But was there ever a moment this season where the Leafs played with a full deck? Toronto had 37 different players suit up for them this season as a result of all their injuries (can you name them all?). At the start of the season, the Leafs had a definitive top nine forwards (Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, Hyman, Johnsson, Kapanen, Kerfoot, Mikheyev), top four defencemen (Rielly, Barrie, Muzzin, Dermott) and starting goaltender (Andersen). What if we looked at the Leafs lineup in each game played this season to determine if there was ever a time when all 14 of these players played in the same game?
The answer? Less than 40 minutes. Those with keen eyes will notice that game 30 is blue all the way across, indicating a fully healthy top nine forwards, top four defenders and starting goaltender. Late in the second period of that December 4th game vs. the Avalanche, which happened to be Mitch Marner’s first game back after missing 11 games with an ankle sprain, Andreas Johnsson broke his foot blocking a shot from an Avs defenceman. To that point in the game, the Leafs had battled Colorado to a 1-1 draw where both teams traded Grade A scoring chances. After the intermission, Colorado pulled away on the strength of a shorthanded goal after one of the most baffling plays of the Leafs season:
Spezza runs a nice pick on Rielly. 2-1 Avs. pic.twitter.com/fs1uQER2EZ
— Ah yes, the Leafs. (@LeafsAllDayy) December 5, 2019
At no other point of the season did we see this collection of fourteen key players play for the Leafs.
So what does this mean? Well aside from 40 minutes against one of the best teams in the league, we have not seen or experienced the best version of this Leafs roster. The Leafs entered the pause of the regular season with injuries to Ilya Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin and Andreas Johnsson. While the former two will be ready to roll come training camp, Johnsson’s recovery timeline puts him at a mid-to-late August return to hockey.
Depending on when the playoffs begin, it’s possible the Leafs could be rolling out the closest thing to an optimal roster since those 40 minutes in December. It’s hard not to get excited about a fully-healthy Leafs squad:
- Sheldon Keefe and company have had months to dissect and analyze the team’s strengths and weaknesses.
- Our injured players have had time to recuperate.
- The Leafs are said to be one of the most on-the-ball teams in terms of return to play readiness.
- There’s the potential of having home-arena advantage if they are chosen as the second hub city.
- This team also has a tendency of offensively exploding out of the gate at the beginning of seasons.
Of course, none of this will matter when Auston Matthews rips a groin while rollerblading tomorrow.