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Wayne Simmonds is Out of Limbo -- For Now

Wayne Simmonds is back on the Toronto Maple Leafs and hoping to make use of perhaps his final shot at sticking on an NHL roster. Can he do it?
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For years, injuries threatened to derail Wayne Simmonds' promising career. Now, one might very well just save it. 

It's a testament to the cruelty of professional sports, really. 

Having spent his 20s battling constant ailments that did all they could to keep him off the ice, Simmonds is now smack-dab in the middle of his 30s and readier than ever to step out on it, entering the 2022-23 season with a clean bill of health only find himself with no place to play. 

Until recently, that is. 

The silver lining with injuries is that they can open doors that previously appeared closed. And with Matt Murray suffering an adductor injury on Saturday that will sideline him for a minimum of four weeks, fate has now plucked Simmonds out of limbo and back onto the Maple Leafs roster, offering what could be his final chance to stick at hockey's highest level. The future could not be more uncertain for the respected veteran at the moment. But Simmonds is determined to once again demonstrate his worth to the organization he calls home. 

"I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm here for these guys," said Simmonds following Sunday's practice – his first back as an official NHLer. 

"I've poured my heart and soul into this team, and that's not going to change. This is where I want to be and I'll do anything in my power to stay with this organization."

Despite being demoted to the Marlies following an unsuccessful bid in the training camp roster battle, Simmonds never made his way down to Toronto's AHL affiliate, instead remaining around the Leafs facilities to skate with the group of non-roster players still left over. It's a humbling experience either way for the veteran of over 1,000 NHL games. But it's one Simmonds did for a reason. 

"The way I thought about it is I want to stay ready and I want to stay prepared," explained Simmonds of his limbo status for the first week of the season. 

"I felt that was the best route for me to take. I did a lot of good stuff with the development team. I still kept in shape, and kept up my routine. So, it was good."

To keep that same passion for the cause despite such daunting professional uncertainty is not something every player could do. Simmonds' love for the Maple Leafs is not lost on those around him, and his teammates are quick to ensure he's recognized for it. If it were up to them. frankly, he'd never leave. 

"Simmer is like family to all of us," stated Auston Matthews on Monday morning. 

"He's a guy that all of us have a tremendous amount of respect for and a guy who has a tremendous amount of respect around the league. We all look at each other as family. But now that I've played with him for a couple of years now, he's extremely important. We look at him as the ultimate warrior, a guy who will do anything for his teammates. So, he really is like family." 

"He's one of a kind," added Rasmus Sandin, whose graduation to full-time Leaf status coincided with Simmonds' arrival to the team. 

"As a young guy, he's one of the only guys to really take me under his wing...The first day I was here, as a young guy coming in, you're a little bit nervous. You don't want to talk too much in the locker room. But he was always coming up to me and just checking in and talking to me and making me feel comfortable. So, he's a special guy in my eyes." 

That admiration for Simmonds extends far beyond the Leafs' locker room, as well. Word of mouth remains the most popular social network in the NHL, and talk of Simmonds' toughness and consistency as a teammate has earned him quite a deal of respect that has extended to all corners of the league. 

"You know, I've played against Simmer a long time," explained Mark Giordano, who only became Simmonds' teammate last season after lining up at the opposite end of the ice for the 1,004 games prior. 

"He's obviously the ultimate competitor out there, sticks up for his teammates, and does everything you could want from a guy in his role." 

"You know, the business side of hockey is tough sometimes. But it's obviously nice to have him in the room again. He's a big part of our team. I know a lot of teams say this, but we have a really tight group, and a guy like him just being around is big."

As important as locker room presence can be to a team's success, hockey games aren't won on vibes alone. Simmonds' odds of staying with the Leafs remain slim these days, even after his call-up on Sunday. The stakes for this Maple Leafs team could not be higher, leaving no room for favors. And when it comes to Simmonds, it's no secret that his on-ice value has dipped in recent years – quite dramatically, too. 

The 33-year-old struggled noticeably to fit in with a fast and versatile Leafs forward corps last season, finishing the 2021-22 campaign with just five goals and 16 points in 72 games while averaging a mere 9:20 in nightly ice time -- by far the lowest total of his career. 

It took Simmonds until Nov. 18, 2021, to earn his first primary assist as a Maple Leaf, ultimately coming over a month into his second season in Toronto. In all, Simmonds finished with just four total primary helpers on the year, at one point going 18 games without one in addition to a 30-game goalless drought that spanned the dog days of the schedule. 

Those factors, along with a few outside of his control, are what trapped Simmonds in the dreaded grey area between the NHL and AHL early on. He's clearly not the player he once was. And, frankly, he knows it. 

But Simmonds' promotion back to the big club's roster is not a mere formality, either. This is a remarkably candid player -- one acutely aware of his own shortcomings while being equally hell-bent on addressing them. And, you know what? Simmonds appears to taken his best crack at that thus far, looking noticeably quicker in both training camp and pre-season action after admitting to consciously gearing his off-season training around gaining the extra step of footspeed he lacked towards the end of last year. 

Is this newfound shiftiness the product of early-season vigor or something that will actually stick as the season wears on? That remains to be seen. But Simmonds has faced a perilous future many times before and come out the other side. This challenge might be more daunting than ever, but he's ready. 

"I've played a lot of years in this league. You always want to play for a winning team, especially at this stage of my career," said Simmonds of his future plans. 

"And I think with what's going on with this organization, this is the best spot for me." 

All that's left is to convince the organization of that, too. 

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