In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I focus on three questions that emerged for me from Wednesday night’s game against the Montreal Canadiens. 

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These questions are: First, what will happen to Zach Hyman when Joe Thornton returns from his injury? Second, is John Tavares – who’s a point-a-game player this season – playing well, or isn’t he? Third, is Auston Matthews the best Maple Leafs player who’s ever worn the Blue and White?

Item One: What to Do with Zach Hyman When Joe Thornton Returns?

Zach Hyman isn’t flashy, but he does do a lot of things that add value to the team. First, he works hard to create room for his talented teammates. Second, he plays good defense consistently. Third, he’s absolutely trustworthy when the team is clinging to a lead in the final minute of a game. He can play shutdown hockey, even when there’s an extra attacker on the ice. He can be lights out near the end of a game.

Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman
Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

That’s what happened during the third period in the Maple Leafs’ 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night. Hyman did plenty of damage to the Canadiens’ hopes of victory – all in the third period.  First, he helped set up Ilya Mikheyev’s insurance goal (the eventual game-winner) that made the score 3-1. Second, he scored a late-period empty-netter that put the icing on the cake. 

The 28-year-old Hyman now has four goals and nine points in 14 games this season. Since Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds have been injured for the Maple Leafs, he’s jumped into the team’s top-six forward group without so much as a hiccup. He’s scored six points in the last five games.

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One question facing the Maple Leafs over the next few games is what does the team do with Hyman if and when Joe Thornton can return. Hymen can play anywhere in the team’s lineup and add value. The jury’s no longer out on his worth as a member of the team’s lineup. Furthermore, Hyman’s scoring totals since Thornton and Simmonds have been injured suggest that he can consistently put up solid numbers when he plays on the top six. 

The question is whether the team is better when Hyman plays in the top-six. Or might be more valuable working with Alex Kerfoot and Mikheyev to create a solid shutdown third line? I’m thinking, given that both Kerfoot and Mikheyev are solid defensively and also have a bit of an offensive upside, that head coach Sheldon Keefe will choose the latter.

Item Two: How Well Is John Tavares Actually Playing?

When I saw that John Tavares went off with an injury during the second period, it brought back memories of the early 2019-20 season. I immediately wondered if Tavares could play the entire season without an injury. Fortunately, Tavares seemed none the worse for wear upon returning from his second-period exit caused by the Canadiens’ great defenseman Shea Weber landing on him. Still, I was reminded about October 2019 when Tavares broke his finger and was out for an extended period of time. 

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Fortunately, after being evaluated in the locker room, Tavares emerged without a visible problem. In fact, he scored two assists after returning from the locker room. Currently, although there’s some talk about Tavares not having a strong season and doing most of his goal-scoring when he’s on the power play, the 30-year-old center is still averaging a point-a-game (14 points in 14 games).

I’m not sure I worry all that much about his scoring, and he’s taking advantage of his chances when he gets them. However, might it suggest that the partnership of Tavares and Nylander might need a boost. If so, who might it be? The last depth chart I saw suggested Mikheyev. Perhaps I’m thinking with my heart, but I’d love to see Jason Spezza get more minutes; and, as Tavares’ winger he might do that. I like Mikheyev on the third line.

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Tavares has a few days of rest just in case the injury was more than it might have seemed at the time. I’m looking forward to him playing the entire season without injury. He’s a steady influence on the offense and seems – to my eyes – playing well.

Item Three: Is Auston Matthews Already the Best Maple Leafs Player Ever?

Auston Matthews barely showed up on the scoreboard – but he did at the last possible minute, and that assist kept his point-scoring streak alive at 11 games. By the way, Matthews assisted on Hyman’s empty-net goal at 18:56 of the third period – just under the wire. 

The 23-year-old Matthews has only been held off the scoresheet in one of his appearances this year — he’s riding a personal 11-game point streak. The star center is up to 11 goals and five assists (for 16 points) in 13 games. During Wednesday’s TSN 690 show, the panel (including invited guest Pierre McGuire), wondered aloud if Matthews might be the best Maple Leafs’ player ever to wear the uniform. Perhaps that assessment is a bit premature; but, it’s a consideration. 

Furthermore, it isn’t just Matthews’ offense. Sure, he’s on pace for more than 50 goals in this COVID-19-shortened and compressed 56-game season. Matthews’ biggest improvement is as a two-way player. The Maple Leafs’ team as a whole is playing considerably better defensively than it has over the past few seasons. 

Columbus Blue Jackets Nick Foligno Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Nick Foligno protects the puck from Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

One reason it has is because Matthews is personally playing considerably better defense than he has in the past. And, because he’s such a horse on the ice – he’s a fit 6-foot-3, 210 pounds this season, he’s on the ice lots. He averages 22 minutes-per-game and even played just under 25 minutes during the recent 3-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

Matthews can simply take over a game; and, when he’s on his game, few are better. He’s improving every season. Now in his fifth season, he’s already scored 300 points (including 169 goals) in only 294 games.  

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The Maple Leafs had some good news in that both Thornton and youngster Nick Robertson are back at practice skating with the team. Although neither has been cleared to return from tie LTIR, it’s good to see they are recovering from their different injuries. 

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It will be interesting to see where and when coach Keefe deploys them into the lineup.