We all know the only reason the Leafs have a two-game road trip in Colorado and Arizona is to give Auston Matthews a ride home for Christmas. But to make it look good, the Leafs are going to play the two games on Thursday and Friday.
To that end, they need to sort out their centre situation after injuries to Tyler Bozak and Ben Smith. They called up Frederik Gauthier and gave him a game that went not very well. But, truthfully, it was William Nylander, thrust into the spotlight as the centre for Mitch Marner and James van Riemsdyk, that was a more important problem to solve out of that game.
Nylander might be able to accomplish that just by getting over his nerves.
On the fourth line, the Leafs looked lost without Ben Smith, and no, I never thought I’d say that and mean it. Gauthier is allowed nerves too, and he was at least in the acceptable range on the faceoff, but I’m not sure if putting him out on the ice at altitude is going to make him look any better.
Yesterday Mike Babcock joked about the injury situation:
Babcock joked (maybe?) he "didn't have the courage to ask" if Bozak and Smith will go on road trip. But said Rielly is "fine.— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) December 20, 2016
And then today the news came:
So maybe he wasn’t joking at all.
With Smith on IR, that leaves either Gauthier or Byron Froese as the 4C and either Josh Leivo or the one left over as a winger. I’m not sure Leivo at altitude is going to be a sight to behold either.
But all of that aside, the real question is how is Bozak and is he playing or not? Because you can shake Froese and Smith up in a bag and dump them out and I’m not sure who is who, but the centre on the Marner line is an important job.
Auston Matthews leads the team with 24 points right now, but it’s Marner with 23 and van Riemsdyk with 22 and 20 goals between them who are also driving game outcomes.
And Froese, meanwhile, has been scoring well in the AHL with a slightly high shooting percentage and his usual dogged determination to always drive to the net. He has played with some very good wingers as well.
Tomorrow, we’ll know who is slotting in where for the first game of the back-to-back. Antoine Bibeau will be starting one of the two games as well.
So this pair of games is like getting one of those boxes of chocolates without the map to tell you which one has that strange gelatinous centre. You never know until you try it.
#Leafs lines in practice drills:— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) December 21, 2016
I’m not sure what any of that means other than a sign that Nylander was judged to be suffering from more than just nerves in his last game. I know I’m staying up to watch the next game though!
Updated some more: The injury to Smith required surgery on his hand on Wednesday, with no timeline give for a return.