Mike Babcock has been around long enough to recognize the obvious story of the day.
That is why the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach did not even wait to take his customary media-scrum position at the south end of the team’s MasterCard Centre dressing room to address the status of wunderkind Mitch Marner’s shoulder injury.
“Mitch Marner is day-to-day, so that means tomorrow we talk about it again, how’s that?” Babcock said loudly after practice Friday as he walked through the door to the dressing room and took his place against the wall, facing the usual group of reporters and cameras. “And the next day we’ll talk about it again. If we ever get an off-day, if we do, we won’t talk about it that day.”
Yes, coach, but does that mean Marner will be able to play Saturday night against the Ottawa Senators or in Sunday’s road game against the Carolina Hurricanes?
“I don’t know that,” Babcock said. “We’ll see [Saturday]. Obviously, if I’m in charge he’s in, if the doctors are in charge they’ll decide.”
Marner sustained what appeared to be an injury to his right shoulder in Wednesday’s 5-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The winger slid hard into the boards during the second period and eventually left the game after two attempts to play another shift.
He did not take part in Friday’s practice and his status as day-to-day indicates the injury may not be serious. However, in the NHL day-to-day can stretch on for a couple of weeks or more.
The Leafs cannot afford to lose Marner, their most creative player and points leader, for an extended period. Heading into Saturday’s game against the Senators, an important one since the Leafs are three points behind them in the fight for second place in the NHL’s Atlantic Division, the Leafs have a mediocre 3-3-2 record in February. They are hanging on to the final wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with the New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres all within three points or fewer.
While the Leafs slowed down in February, Marner did not. He reeled in teammate Auston Matthews as a favourite in the race for the NHL rookie-of-the-year award. Marner has seven points in eight games in February (including the partial game in Columbus) to run his total for the season to 48 points in 56 games. That is tied with Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets for the lead among NHL rookies.
“He’s a huge part of our team,” Marner’s linemate James van Riemsdyk said of the prospect of playing without him. “You see the kind of success he’s had, it’s an opportunity for other guys to step up and play different roles and we’ll see what happens.”
So far, the forward who stepped up the most is winger Josh Leivo. He finally got into the lineup in Tuesday’s 7-1 win over the Islanders after the long stay on the sidelines, because of injuries and a competitive roster, and made the most of it. Leivo, 23, scored his first goal of the season and had two assists against the Islanders in 9 minutes 48 seconds of ice-time. Babcock rewarded Leivo with a promotion from the fourth line and almost 15 minutes on the ice in the Columbus game after Marner’s injury. He finished with two assists to run his points total to five in two games.
In Friday’s practice, Leivo played right wing on a line with centre Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov. He also played with Kadri and Tyler Bozak on the second power-play unit. Not bad for someone who could not crack the lineup a week ago.
Marner’s spot on the right side with centre Bozak and van Riemsdyk was taken by Connor Brown. William Nylander then stepped into Brown’s place on the line with Matthews and left winger Zach Hyman. The fourth line was centre Ben Smith between Matt Martin and Nikita Soshnikov, who gets back in the lineup after a stay in the press box.
“It feels good; obviously the hard work paid off,” Leivo said of the quick adjustment to a prominent role. “The tough part was mentally focusing. Having a good group of guys made it easier, if this was a losing team it would be tougher.
“I feel I’m heavy on the puck. I just have to keep that going.”
However, Leivo’s history indicates his contribution to the Leafs will be a physical game rather than scoring, even though Babcock said he was “the best player on the ice” in Columbus.
But if Leivo can maintain a strong presence in games, Babcock sees his contribution as increasing the competitive fire among the forwards who have to fight for a spot on the playing roster.
“You want too many forwards for the amount of slots,” Babcock said on radio station TSN 1050. “You can tell a guy to get going all you want, [but] when he misses a shift and Leivo takes his spot it’s amazing how that helps instead of me talking.”Report Typo/Error