By Stan Smith
On Saturday, March 4, in Vancouver, the Toronto Maple Leafs were either very unlucky or very lucky. In a game where they lost 4-1 to the Vancouver Canucks, they came within a razor’s edge of losing three of their best players.
In the first minute of play in the game, team captain John Tavares was rocked by a hit by 6-foot-8 and 230-pound Tyler Myers. Tavares never missed a shift in that game and went on to play 21:21 of ice time. He did receive another fairly significant hit later in the game.
On Monday at the Maple Leafs’ practice, Tavares was not a full-time participant and wore a grey “extra player” jersey.
When asked about Tavares following practice Head Coach Sheldon Keefe stated:
“He was not feeling himself today … wasn’t feeling great … wanted to see exactly where he was at. He got through it. He was feeling a little bit better than he thought.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we will leave him out of the lineup tomorrow and get him ready for Saturday.”
Tavares Might Have Been Injured, But He Also Was Under the Weather
When Keefe was questioned about whether or not Tavares’ issue was related to the punishment he took in Vancouver he answered:
“You are a little more mindful of it, but there is a lot more… There is a bug going around. We have been travelling a lot. A lot is happening there.
We just want to be sure. He got through the entire practice today and felt good, but more on our side of it than his, let’s just be cautious on this one. As long as he continues to progress well, he will be ready to go for Saturday.
He did take some hits certainly in the last game. It is not an easy trip. It hasn’t been easy travel. Any time you aren’t feeling yourself, you have to be smart about it. That is really all it is about: making sure he is feeling 100% and ready to go for Saturday.”
Reading between the lines and trying not to read too much into it, it appears that Keefe was saying Tavares was not 100% and they had no idea why.
With just over a minute to go in the first period Auston Matthews took a slapshot by Canucks’ defenseman Noah Juulsen off the inside of the left leg when he attempted to block the shot. He went down in obvious agony. There he remained on the ice for a considerable time before being helped off the ice and into the locker room.
Matthews missed most of the second period but did return and finished the game. He did state following the game that he was still in some pain from the shot. Visually, once he returned he did seem to be labouring somewhat with his skating.
Watching the slow-motion replays it appears the shot hit him just below his left knee. If the contact point had been one or two inches higher the outcome could have been much worse. Matthews could have easily missed the rest of the season with a severe knee injury.
As it was, Matthews was a full participant in practice two days later. Was he 100%? We have no way of knowing. From where it appears the shot hit him we would guess he was in no danger of injuring himself any further by playing. It would not surprise us if there would be some lingering discomfort.
Late in the second period, a shot hit newly acquired Ryan O’Reilly. Guess who? From, of all people, Auston Matthews. Matthews had just returned to the game after sitting out most of the period. The shot caught O’Reilly on the 2nd finger of his left hand breaking the finger. O’Reilly left the game and did not return.
Keefe announced at practice on the following Monday that the team placed O’Reilly on Long-Term Injury Reserve. That means that O’Reilly will miss, by the NHL LTIR rule, at the very least 24 days and 10 games. If our calculations are correct that means that he will be eligible to return for the game at home on March 29th against the Florida Panthers.
Being Eligible and Being Ready Are Two Different Things
The question there is not as much when he is “eligible” to return, but more when will he be “capable” of returning. The timeline for a broken finger, depending on the severity of the break and whether surgery is needed, can be in the four to the six-week range. If the injury is bad enough that O’Reilly is out six weeks that takes him to April 15th. The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs are scheduled to begin on April 17th.
Keefe stated that they expected O’Reilly to be ready for playoffs. If he is out for the full six weeks exactly how “ready” will he be? The good thing about a hand injury is it does not prevent a player from doing a lot of things to stay in shape, skating being the most important. But, it does prevent the player from holding a hockey stick properly and doing everything that comes along with that.
In addition then, what are the long-term effects on the player and his ability to shoot a puck, or in the case of a center, take faceoffs? Luckily for the Maple Leafs, General Manager Kyle Dubas has stocked himself with several centers. That would allow O’Reilly to play on the wing.
At times, Keefe has had O’Reilly playing center, with Tavares on his left wing. He could easily switch the two of them, moving Tavares back to center and placing O’Reilly on his left wing until O’Reilly reaches the point where he can take faceoffs once again.
Injuries Can Derail a Team’s Best Plans
This situation does demonstrate how luck, and how it relates to injuries, can derail the best of plans for an NHL team. Here was a situation where three of the Maple Leafs’ best players could have all been lost for an extended period.
According to the betting site Donbest.com, there are presently over 120 of the 700 plus players, or close to 20% of all the players in the NHL presently on each of the 32 teams “missing from action” lists https://www.donbest.com/nhl/injuries
While the list is comprised mostly of injured players it also lists players missing games for other reasons as well, such as Luke Schenn missing the game in New Jersey because of the recent birth of a child.
The list does show how prevalent injuries are in the NHL, and how they are unavoidable in a game as physical as professional hockey.
Although the Maple Leafs Luck Was Bad, It Might Have Been Worse
It does appear that luck was on the Maple Leafs’ side to some extent and that all three players will be available for the playoffs. That is until the next player, or players, get hurt. That is not “if they get hurt”, but “when”.
We have not seen the last injury of a Toronto Maple Leafs’ player this season. It is more a matter of who, and when.