The injury bug has struck the Maple Leafs again ahead of the 2022-23 season, as John Tavares will join Timothy Liljegren on the injured list for the season opener due to an oblique strain (minimum three weeks recovery time). Jake Muzzin, Pierre Engvall, and Adam Gaudette are also nursing injuries but appear on track to be options for the start of the regular season against Montreal on Oct. 12.
Tavares picked up the injury in the game against the Senators on Saturday and participated in practice yesterday before further tests diagnosed the extent of the ailment. If Tavares’ recovery was complete by the three-week mark exactly — the best-case scenario — he would be back for October 18 in time for the game against Dallas on October 20, which means missing four games in total.
Therefore, the Leafs will be without their captain and a significant piece of their center depth for the opening week of the season at a minimum, which likely leaves Alex Kerfoot centering the second line next to William Nylander, two players with loads of history together and a C-RW combination we’ve seen Sheldon Keefe turn to in the past in Tavares’ absence, including in the series versus Montreal in 2021. Kerfoot has spent his reps in camp so far playing down the middle.
David Kampf is the team’s other regular center, which leaves a few options for the Leafs to fill out the lineup down the middle. Newcomer Calle Jarnkrok has plenty of experience at the position throughout his career, and both Gaudette and Engvall (if healthy) can fill a gap there in a pinch. All are arguably better wingers than centers, but the options are there.
The Leafs have also been giving centerman Pontus Holmberg, who played out the stretch with the Marlies last season and has four years of professional experience in the SHL under his belt, plenty of looks in camp next to skilled linemates, including Nylander and Denis Malgin.
“Kerfoot has been at center in camp so far, and Järnkrok has the ability to play up the middle,” said Sheldon Keefe today. “I have been very happy with Holmberg’s camp here so far… He is right there and in the mix. We have a number of different options. In the time we have remaining, we will look at those.”
The other consideration is the cap situation knowing Tavares will not be placed on LTIR to start the 2022-23 campaign, as that would require the captain to miss a minimum of 10 games or 24 days of the regular season.
Throwing together a rough sketch of how the forward lineup might play out for opening night includes a lot of unknowns and question marks beyond the top line. Will Nick Robertson — who has work to do in camp and preseason to earn an opening-night lineup position — claim a spot? Can Malgin sustain the momentum he’s created for himself early in camp and grab an opening-night lineup job?
The possibilities break down roughly along these lines:
Bunting – Matthews – Marner
Robertson / Malgin – Kerfoot – Nylander
Engvall – Kampf – Järnkrok
Aston-Reese / Clifford / Steeves – Holmberg / Gaudette – Aube-Kubel / Simmonds
There is also the option to line up all of Matthews, Kerfoot, Järnkrok, and Kampf down the middle, opening up additional wing spots for the likes of Malgin, Robertson, Alex Steeves, Aston-Reese, Clifford, Gaudette, and Simmonds (we can toss Bobby McMann, Nick Abruzzese, and Joey Anderson into this mix also) to compete for.
Lots to be determined over the next few weeks.