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How Auston Matthews’ injury affects the Maple Leafs’ trade deadline strategy

If the Leafs are being honest and Matthews really is out just “a bit,” nothing should change about their trading strategy. If the injury is worse than they’re letting on, though…

Is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season irreparably damaged? Probably not. Don’t cancel the parade routes just yet. The plans all depend on what we choose to believe about the current information regarding Auston Matthews’ shoulder injury.

As New York Islanders right winger Cal Clutterbuck told THN after Thursday’s game at the Air Canada Centre, it was a strange, freak play that hurt Matthews, who had notched his team-leading 28th goal in the third period to send the game to overtime. Isles defenseman Adam Pelech thought he had Matthews lined up – but so did Clutterbuck. The result was an unplanned pincer attack.

“I was trying to push him over at the same time, and he got his head sandwiched a bit, maybe,” Clutterbuck said. “It was just awkward. It actually hurt me, too. He fell into my ribcage.”

Matthews immediately stormed off the ice muttering obscenities, a sign that whatever happened to him was definitive and definitively bad. It’s always alarming when a player knows he’s hurt the second he gets hit.

Predictably, the Leafs had no information to offer after the game. Friday at the practice, they confirmed Matthews (a) went for an MRI and (b) would be out “a bit” with a shoulder injury, according to coach Mike Babcock.

OK, then. Let’s start fielding hypothetical questions from a justifiably terrified Leaf Nation. Your team just went 12-2-0 over its past 14 games, with wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators, so there’s plenty to lose here. First: how serious is the injury? The Leafs are the New England Patriots of the NHL, as opaque as any team in the league when it comes to disclosing injury information.“A bit” could mean a lot of things. Even though Babcock added he isn’t concerned about Matthews, we shouldn’t expect to see the budding superstar for at least a week. The Leafs treated Matthews very carefully when he sustained upper-body injuries in November and December, the second of which he confirmed as a concussion, holding him out a combined 10 games, and you could argue they needed him a lot more then. They’ve since distanced themselves from the Atlantic Division pack to an eye-popping degree, creating a 21-point chasm between them and the fourth-place Florida Panthers. The Leafs are locked into the playoffs and unlikely to pass the powerhouse squads ahead of them, Tampa and Boston, especially with the Bruins holding five games in hand. There’s thus little motivation to hustle No. 34 back into the starting lineup.

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The next natural question: what does the injury mean with the trade deadline just a few days away? It’s possible we get clearer and grimmer details about Matthews’ timeline once the MRI results are official, but if he really is going to be fine – heck, even if he’s out until the beginning of April – nothing should get crossed off GM Lou Lamoriello’s shopping list that wasn’t there a day ago, especially if the plan is to surrender non-roster assets to make upgrades. If the Leafs are in on New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, for example, a Matthews-less roster isn’t affected if the price to get him is Timothy Liljegren and a first-round pick. If Toronto continues its reported pursuit of Detroit Red Wings center Luke Glendening, again, Matthews doesn’t affect anything. The player most impacted by the injury is William Nylander, who will get a look at center, and he obviously won’t be part of any deadline deal. If Matthews returns by the post-season, the Leafs should be one of the best 10 squads in the field, and we know this year and especially next constitute serious contention windows while Matthews and Mitch Marner remain on their entry-level contracts. You thus take the shot when you can, and it’s still plausible to do as long as Matthews is relatively OK.

If the injury is more serious than the Leafs are letting on, then sure, things change. You hold back on pursuing a home-run piece like McDonagh, and you theoretically reconsider whether to sell pending UFAs James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov, because Leafs cannot win the Stanley Cup sans-Matthews, especially when the road goes through the Bruins or Lightning in Round 1.

But for now, let’s treat Babcock’s comments as legitimate. Matthews will return at some point this season, likely before the end of March. In the past month, the Leafs have evolved into a team to be taken seriously, relying on their speed again, giving prospects Travis Dermott and Kasperi Kapanen the ice time they deserve and seemingly winning whether they play great or poorly, the sign of a talent-rich team. A 12-2-0 run is more than a hot streak. The Leafs are thus justified in pursuing upgrades leading up to Monday if and only if Matthews will return this season.

Or maybe Lamoriello planned to stand pat all along and any trade speculation is moot. Now we wait.