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Matthews’ participation delayed as fight for forward spots at Maple Leafs camp heats up

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A couple of asterisks stood out when the Maple Leafs’ roster for training camp was announced on Wednesday.

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Auston Matthews had one beside his name, given his recovery from surgery on his left wrist, indicating he is starting camp on injured reserve. Ditto for rookie Alex Steeves, who suffered a shoulder injury last week during the prospect tournament in Michigan.

One is a bit more impactful on the Leafs lineup than the other.

Matthews, who is skating and figures on being ready for the regular-season opener, won’t be taking part in on-ice drills quite yet as his path to full health takes its course.

And while the delay in Matthews’ participation might have been expected, there’s little doubt that the Leafs’ forward group as a whole is unsettled with the initial on-ice sessions at the Ford Performance Centre scheduled to begin on Thursday.

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Both general manager Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe, for now, are satisfied with the potential depth of the forward group. How those 12 players line up exactly on Oct. 13 when the Leafs play host to the Montreal Canadiens to kick off the regular season is something else entirely.

“Up front, we’ve got quite a few changes,” Dubas said. “Rather than try to make a splashy move, we’ve tried to acquire a group of players that we think have just begun to show their potential or fit a specific need we have or need a chance at a bit of redemption.

“And we’re hoping to provide that here.”

While Dubas, Keefe and the players available to media on the opening day of camp generally made it clear that they’re prepared to put the first-round collapse against the Montreal Canadiens behind them, the loss will follow them through the regular season and won’t possibly be rectified until the playoffs start next spring.

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In order to get it right in the months ahead in a return to the competitive Atlantic Division, the forwards are going to have to fall into place. Most crucial is the open slot on the left wing on the Matthews-Mitch Marner line, with Zach Hyman gone to the Edmonton Oilers.

Keefe will have some patience as he decides who fits where. Newcomers Nick Ritchie, Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase, David Kampf and Kurtis Gabriel will be in the hunt for permanent spots. Ilya Mikheyev, we would assume, will have some hunger after reportedly asking for a trade, and Nick Robertson is going to get his shot. As Dubas said on Wednesday, Robertson could “bulldoze his way through it if he wants it.”

Josh Ho-Sang and Nikita Gusev, in camp on tryouts, will be given every chance to make a proper impression.

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“Not having Auston will limit some of the things we would like to do,” Keefe said. “In the early stages, I’m looking to provide opportunity and try different things with different players.

“Nothing is set in stone, and that’s what is probably the most exciting for a coach as you go into a camp. You’ve got positions available and you’ve got competition.

“I don’t see a lot of holes there (among the forwards) that I’ve seen in some other camps. Extra depth is good for us.”

Of course, for the Leafs to gain momentum as the regular season unfolds, the Big Four of Matthews, Marner, captain John Tavares and William Nylander must lead.

“There’s pressure everywhere you go and that’s how you want it to be,” said Marner, who spent some time in the summer learning to trust his shot more. “You want pressure. You don’t want to be playing in a place that no one really cares.”

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Matthews’ participation, once he gets his splint off, can’t come soon enough.

For Tavares, it’s full steam ahead after he suffered a concussion and knee injury in Game 1 against the Canadiens.

The captain’s belief in his team has not wavered.

“It’s not easy to win the Stanley Cup and get to where we want to get to,” Tavares said. “We know how competitive and tight our league is. We just want to keep banging on that door until we knock it down. We believe this group has what it takes to do that.”

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