After 12 straight games on the sidelines, John-Michael Liles will make his return to the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup on Thursday night.
And it’s a good thing, too, given he can’t watch games from the press box like many of his teammates.
“Heights. I don’t like heights,” Liles explained, saying he had only been to the Air Canada Centre gondola once since joining the team. “It’s not that I get nauseous, I just don’t like heights very much. I don’t mind flying or anything like that.”
Instead, Liles has been toiling in the team’s gym in the bowels of the arena every game since last playing in a 3-0 win over the Ottawa Senators way back on Feb. 16.
The thinking is that, even when he’s not playing, his body is being trained as if for a game, allowing him to keep at an NHL-ready pace.
Liles enters the lineup Thursday against the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins in place of Mike Kostka, one of the feel-good stories of the Leafs season after he made his NHL debut at age 27 out of training camp.
Kostka has played all 27 games for Toronto to this point but had a really poor game against the Winnipeg Jets in a lopsided loss on Tuesday and, as a result, his spot on the second pairing with Carl Gunnarsson becomes Liles’s.
One of the things that hasn’t materialized in Kostka’s game at the NHL level is his offence, as he has no goals and seven assists and has been more of a drain on the power play than a benefit.
Liles, meanwhile, was a key member of what was a pretty successful Leafs PP unit in the first half of last year before a concussion derailed his season.
He said he expects to be at full speed in Thursday’s game.
“I mean, it’s not like I went through an injury where I wasn’t doing anything,” Liles said. “For me, I don’t see it being an issue, but I guess we’ll see. You guys will be watching to see if I’m up to speed.”
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle sounded confident Liles would be able to reintegrate well on a blueline that hasn't had many changes of late.
“We make the decision based upon where we think the individuals are at, and if our lineup needs tweaking, we make that decision,” Carlyle said. “We don’t want to put him into a situation that he can’t survive in.”
It’s probably also worth noting Liles isn’t the kind of player to be bitter about not playing.
In fact, even when out of the lineup, he’s looked at as a leader among the blueliners, someone who by all accounts has had a really positive impact on the organization’s young defencemen like Jake Gardiner, Korbinian Holzer and Morgan Rielly.
“I have been a healthy scratch before and it’s something you learn from and reflect and go back and watch film and see what you can do differently or better,” Liles said. “That’s part of being a professional.
“I’ve played a lot of games in this league and I’m hoping to play a lot more. It’s just a matter of focusing and being ready.”
The Leafs morning skate was an optional one, meaning any further lineup changes won’t be known until right before the game, but it’s confirmed that Ben Scrivens will start in goal.
The Penguins will still be without Evgeni Malkin, who is at least another week away from recovering from his shoulder injury. Pittsburgh is by far the highest scoring team in the league this year with more than 3.60 goals per game, so it’s likely they have enough firepower even without him.
No Malkin makes for easier matchup situations for Carlyle, however, as he can put all of his efforts into stopping Sidney Crosby.
Not that that will be any easy task.
UPDATE: Late in the day, the Leafs made a minor league deal in moving Marlies forward Nicolas Deschamps to the Washington Capitals for defenceman Kevin Marshall. The Marlies blueline is about to get crowded with Rielly coming up from junior next week, so adding yet another body may be in preparation for the Leafs making additional moves.
At some point, they will want Gardiner with the NHL team and freeing up that roster spot will become a priority. If the Leafs brass deem that Holzer should stay in the NHL, that means trading or waiving someone else, as Holzer is the only Leafs defenceman who doesn't require waivers to go down