Toronto Maple Leafs: Auston Matthews still not ready to return

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 10: Auston Matthews
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 10: Auston Matthews /

Mike Babcock ruled out Auston Matthews for the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ next game against the Dallas Stars, with no clear timetable for his return.

It appears that Auston Matthews isn’t quite ready to make his return to the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup, as he was still wearing a red non-contact jersey at practice on Monday.

Afterwards, Mike Babcock confirmed the leading goal-scorer would not be playing against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday, but hinted at him drawing in at some point.

"“He’s obviously feeling way better,” Babcock said to reporters. “(But) I noticed when we were doing the contact stuff, he didn’t do as much of that, didn’t dive right into it. I never talked to anyone about that, that’s just what I noticed."

This is one of those rare moments where the head coach is being patient with Matthews’ recovery process. Since the team plays the following night on the road against the Buffalo Sabres it makes sense to hold him out for that one, because he will not get a chance for contact practice.

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With back-to-back games on the schedule, it might make sense to see the centre make his return on Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens.

It helps that Wednesday’s game against the Stars is a home game so Babcock will have the ability to match lines, which helped against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday. Nazem Kadri also stepped up offensively which has kept the Leafs afloat without Matthews.

The Stars have lost four of their last six games coming into this one and will be playing on Tuesday night in Montreal. before their game against Toronto. While the Maple Leafs cannot take them lightly, there is no reason to rush back Matthews for either game if he is clearly not ready to return.

Nikita Zaitsev‘s status also in doubt

Seeing Zaitsev as a scratch on Saturday night came as a bit of a surprise, as he was kept out with the flu. Now it appears as if the illness is more serious than expected, with the defenceman not on the ice for practice on Monday.

Even though he has struggled this season, it would be tough to expect the blueline to hold up without the 26-year-old, especially on the penalty kill. It was not a major issue against the Penguins but at some point, the team will need Zaitsev to return to form.

That was not the only part of the lineup that appears to be in limbo, as Babcock is still debating on who he will draw in as the fourth line winger.

Leivo assisted on Kasperi Kapanen‘s goal which came off a nifty no-look pass to Tyler Bozak, who found his teammate in front of the net.

If the Leafs are looking for more offence from the fourth line, it would make sense to have Josh Leivo remain in the lineup. Obviously, if toughness is something the team wants, then Matt Martin would be an option.

Next: The effects of fatigue on the Leafs

Then there is the benefit of having another centre, with Dominic Moore also available. This is a good problem for Babcock to have, but one that will likely be determined based on matchups and injuries.