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Why Did Head Coach Sheldon Keefe Come to Auston Matthews’ Defense?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs budding superstar center Auston Matthews is having a career season this year. However, it’s really only been a few games that he’s back on track. For a while, Matthews was in a scoring funk.

Although he had started the season with a bang, he’d run into a bit of a snag because – as we found out recently – he’s been suffering from a wrist injury that had been bothering him for the entire season. However, in late February, the injury flared up enough so that Matthews had to miss two games. Then, when he came back he wasn’t the same and he went three games without a point and five games without a goal.

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For the NHL’s leading goal scorer on the season, that hasn’t happened in a very long time. Matthews was on such a roll that he was almost assured to give the 50 goals in 50 game quest a heck of a chase. No goals in five straight games retarded that pace for sure.

Sheldon Keefe Speaks Straightforwardly about His Player

On March 8, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe did five things that I haven’t seen before – at least that very often.

First, he admitted that Matthews had a wrist injury.

Second, he shared that Matthews had been suffering with that injury almost from the start of the season.

Third, he admitted that the injury was impacting Matthews’ abilities to play his game.

Maple Leafs Auston Matthews @reebeccathomson
Maple Leafs Auston Matthews photo by @reebeccathomson

Fourth, he shared that, because the injury had not allowed Matthews to play as he felt he could (and should), Matthews was frustrated. It was bothering him mentally.

Fifth, Keefe noted that – even though Matthews wasn’t 100% – he remained one of the Maple Leafs’ best players and because he wasn’t likely to injure himself more, he would continue to play.

Keefe also noted that it had been difficult for the young player to deal with the injury mentally. Still, Keefe was quick to reassure Maple Leafs’ fans and others that Matthews was still producing on the ice and added value to the team.

What Was Sheldon Keefe’s Agenda?

I was surprised that Keefe’s explanation of Matthews injury was so forthcoming. However, I was more surprised that Keefe announced that Matthews was “dealing with the mental effect of not being 100% himself.” That seemed a bit revealing and personal.

When I thought about it, and I could be wrong here, it struck me that Keefe knew exactly what he wanted to do. He was announcing to those in the Toronto market who were die-hard Maple Leafs fans that (a) Matthews was having enough trouble playing with the wrist injury and (b) was already being impacted mentally because he wasn’t 100%, which caused his play to suffer.

Sheldon Keefe, Maple Leafs Head Coach

Ergo, and again I am only guessing here, but in so many words and without saying it straight on, he was “inviting” Maple Leafs fans to give Matthews some space to deal with both his wrist injury and the mental impact of that injury. In that, I also came to believe Keefe was very aware that he coaching Maple Leafs’ players in Toronto and not Sharks’ players in San Jose.

In Toronto every one knows you if you’re a player and there’s no place to hide. It’s different; and, for some it’s better. For some – like defenseman Nikita Zaitsev of the Ottawa Senators – you simply have to move to survive as a player.

Related: Sheldon Keefe on Wayne Simmonds: He Talks All the Time & That’s Good

Keefe’s Commercial for His Player

Keefe’s commercial about Matthews basically reminded fans that he was a great young player; and, even if he didn’t score, he added other attributes to the team. Keefe didn’t say it this way, but the message was clear. The Maple Leafs team is better with a non-scoring Matthews than it would be with basically anyone else.

Fortunately for the Maple Leafs, Matthews scoring funk was short-lived and Matthews came back for a few goals in the last few games. He scored three goals during the first two games of the Winnipeg Jets’ three-game series this week in Toronto.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs

I for one came to appreciate the Maple Leafs young star more because I learned more about him during this injury. He cares to do well, and it bothers him when he doesn’t. I also came to appreciate coach Keefe more. He’s what’s called a players’ coach – he will stick up for his guys. That’s good for the team.

It’s probably also good karma. We’ll see how that works out soon enough.

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