The Maple Leafs announced this morning that Auston Matthews will be out of the lineup for a minimum of three weeks due to a knee sprain suffered against the New York Rangers.

“I am not certain what it was specifically or if there was one specific incident. I noticed him in a little discomfort a couple of times throughout the game. I didn’t think much of it at the time. He was still sore the next day. They brought him for an MRI, and there was an injury there. It will take some time.”

– Sheldon Keefe on the injury to Matthews

While there are a few notable games coming up against the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins, the timing in the schedule probably couldn’t be better as far as cushioning the blow.

After Saturday, the Leafs play just one game in a 10-day span due to the All-Star break. When they return from the pause, they’ll play a back-to-back against Columbus followed by three days off, a game against Chicago, two more days off, and then another back-to-back against Montreal and Chicago (again). If the Leafs were forced to pick a time for Matthews to be injured, this might be the one.

Of course, this is not the first time this season that Matthews has missed time. He already missed two games due to an undisclosed injury this season. Unlike this one  — which we know is a knee sprain — the details of the first injury were never made public, and it’s safe to infer that they are two completely different ailments. Presumably, he’ll have to continue to manage and play through the other injury for the rest of the season.

Matthews has played 82 games just once in seven seasons so far — all the way back in his rookie season. In fairness, he was yet to miss a game in the season halted by Covid, so it’s possible he could have played the full 82.

It will be interesting to monitor how the Leafs shift their lineup around without Matthews. In the first game without him, at home, they tried William Nylander at center, where he had some good moments. In the next game on the road, Sheldon Keefe moved Alex Kerfoot to center in the top six instead. There were also sporadic shifts where Pontus Holmberg moved up; we’ll see if he receives more looks higher in the lineup now and if he can excel in the opportunity.

Holmberg has put together a solid rookie season, and if he performs well alongside the Leafs‘ top players in the top six, it could mean more chances to move up the lineup when the team is fully healthy. It would give Keefe a bit more flexibility when configuring the lineup depending on game situations (i.e. play him more when down a goal; play David Kampf more when up a goal). Holmberg will need to prove he can consistently handle it, though.

Pierre Engvall also moved up the lineup — which is rare for him — next to William Nylander during Matthews’ first injury and did not look out of place. Maybe he receives more opportunities now, too.

The injury also comes at a time when the Leafs recently reverted back to the Matthews – Marner, Tavares – Nylander combinations. Will Keefe keep Tavares with Nylander? Will he move Marner back there now? Do we see the three of them play together more often? Answers to these questions will unravel over the weeks to come, not just in tonight’s game against Ottawa.

For the Leafs’ other depth players, this represents is a big opportunity to stake a claim to a roster spot. Sheldon Keefe somewhat called out Zach Aston-Reese recently. Dryden Hunt was sent down last week. Wayne Simmonds hasn’t played (or shown) much in general. Bobby McMann has had some moments, but ultimately, he hasn’t produced to show he can contribute offensively nor is he a high-end checking winger (you usually need to do at least one of the two to stick in the lineup).

Naturally, when injuries occur, it opens up a roster spot and ice time. If there was ever a time for any of these players (or others — Adam Gaudette?) to make a case for a roster spot ahead of the trade deadline, this is it.

The NHL also announced that Aleksander Barkov will be replacing Matthews at the All-Star Game, should you care about such matters. Of course, it’s a joke that Nylander still isn’t there, but I don’t think anyone will be losing sleep over it. If there is anyone who would brush it off and enjoy the time off instead, it would be Nylander. And who can blame him?