Centers of attention: Leafs health concerns will be a theme for the next month

Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 year ago
Good news everyone, Matt Murray was activated off the LTIR. He looked pretty decent for most of the night too and to a significant extent you can say the Leafs hung him out to dry. That might seem like an excuse but two shorthanded goals on the same powerplay is exceptionally stupid. Only one 5v5 goal was scored against Murray, and well…before I forget that this article isn’t supposed to be about Murray at all, I’ll just say he deserves another go but easing him back remains important.
What this post is supposed to be about is a bit of an “I told you so” moment that came when Auston Matthews was hurt blocking a shot. That was the moment I was going to say that’s why prioritizing a scoring forward who could play center as well as wing matters because it keeps Kerfoot and Kampf out of the 2C spot on the Leafs. Matthews eventually returned but didn’t look particularly in the best shape to be doing so and then the Leafs had to deal with O’Reilly departing with his own injury. If this isn’t Toronto luck at its finest, I don’t know what is.
So yeah, Matthews not feeling great and Ryan O’Reilly having a “timeline” is significant. Welcome back to where the Leafs were in January, minus Pierre Engvall. Arguably preserving some forward depth at the cost of not adding an extra defenseman would have made some sense, and probably could have been achieved by chancing the lack of interesting in claiming Alex Kerfoot and his $3.5M cap hit, but the past is the past and the Leafs need to move forward, and that is doable.
I’m not going to pretend to know anything about the multitude of different things this could mean, but I will say that it being limited to a finger injury is a better outcome than so many of the other hand/wrist related alternatives. It would take an extreme case here for O’Reilly to not be back playing with the Leafs before the playoffs.

Bubble wrap isn’t an option

Both with O’Reilly and Matthews there really isn’t an option to keep them out of the lineup and injuries are going to happen. It’s how the Leafs respond to those injuries that is important. We’ve gotten a small taste of what that response looks like with Timothy Liljegren. After being banged up in Edmonton, Liljegren has sat for the past two. This could certainly be aided by the defensive depth situation in contrast to the forward depth situation, but it seems unlikely the Leafs wouldn’t continue giving their players the best possible recovery window as there shouldn’t any need to rush anyone back to the lineup when the Leafs hold a five point advantage over the Lightning in the standings and really have nothing to lose but potentially a first round home ice advantage anyway.
It’s not 100% load management, but it’s about as close as you can get. That’s why with a week with a game on Tuesday and the Leafs not playing again until Saturday, I’d consider giving Auston the game off against New Jersey as well as O’Reilly to make sure whatever is ailing him as a chance to heal too. That means in all likelihood running an 11F/7D again, this time without two players you want to give that increased forward icetime to, but it might be the best short term option.

There likely will be recalls

The Leafs have $850k in available cap space right now for making a recall. They are allowed four recalls from now until the end of the regular season, outside of emergency recalls. Presumably the Leafs would have to go without O’Reilly and/or Matthews before the emergency recall would be allowed to get the Leafs up to 12 forwards, then they can make a recall without it counting against their allotment. On the other hand, the Leafs know they like to use Pontus Holmberg as much as possible and maybe it’s time to acknowledge that he makes sense on the roster up until they need the cap allotment for bringing in Matthew Knies. Holmberg not requiring waivers at all this year makes him the easy choice, but he’s also the choice based on merit. The Leafs could potentially go with Bobby McMann as well, but Holmberg seems to be the further along of the two players and the one that could potentially have more to offer up the lineup.
If Ryan O’Reilly goes on LTIR, which could still be a thing and not something that should induce significant fear, the Leafs would have $1.875M of cap relief to work with and basically four weeks that it will be in effect for. That covers off getting Holmberg and either McMann or someone else into the Leafs lineup down the stretch. Part of me also wonders if the Leafs go with someone like Wayne Simmonds or Kyle Clifford in the lineup as somewhat of a shenanigan deterrent, though the effectiveness of this way of thinking is somewhat flawed, I’m not really measuring the merits, just considering that they could go this route. The Leafs have avoided assigning Simmonds to the Marlies roster and this could just be able giving him some games before he likely calls it a career.

The lineup without O’Reilly and possibly Matthews

The lineup without O’Reilly might be a bit more straight forward. We’ll see Calle Jarnkrok up on the second line and the bottom six will look pretty much like does when O’Reilly is up on the second line, except with Aston-Reese coming in for Jarnkrok.
Where it gets interesting, and what I would somewhat be interested in seeing is if Matthews was held out Tuesday night as well. I would be very curious to see Sam Lafferty step into Matthews spot and center Bunting and Nylander. Lafferty’s speed might work with Nylander and the idea of Lafferty and Bunting doing grimey things together might open up some ice for Nylander while potentially helping Bunting break out of his recent funk as well.
What I like about the late part of the season is there is that renewed interest in experimentation and the Leafs have already started with their 11F/7D lineup. Injuries are also going to be unfortunate and they are always going to happen, but they can also provide opportunities. The Leafs are in the fortunate situation where they won’t be impacted in the standings by anything that happens over the next six weeks so as much they can let their players heal up and try new things with the lineup card, the better off they’ll be when the games start to matter again. It just likely means there will be some more hard to watch hockey in our future.

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