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Rosie DiManno: Leafs have Matthews’ back, but not like the old days

Rosie DiManno: Leafs have Matthews’ back, but not like the old days
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Despite a 5-1 record with Matthews out of the lineup this season, heading into Thursday night. No sighting of the young star on Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center, nor is he likely to be seen in the Detroit balance of this five-day road trip.

It was friendly fire that struck Matthews, in a Dec. 9 inadvertent collision with teammate Morgan Rielly. The cause and nature of his previous injury last month, however — other than the ubiquitous “upper-body” diagnosis — is open to dispute.

What was clear, upon Matthews’ return in a game versus Montreal, was that a whole bunch of Habs were taking a whole bunch of whacks across his purportedly sore back: cross-checks, sly digs with the stick in the end boards, a push and a shove and a jostle.

Afterwards, Matthews shrugged his shoulders. “That’s the NHL. You get used to it.”

But do you? And should he?

Welcome to your sophomore year in the NHL, when everybody is well aware of where the pith of the Leafs resides.

This may not be Mario Lemieux’s “garage league’’ anymore, with all the clutching and hacking that was once endemic. Elite players, however, are still covertly targeted — even more so, apparently, when there’s a hint of an injury vulnerability.

Matthews can’t take on the hordes of molesters. That’s not his job.

“Marty does that,” coach Mike Babcock states frankly.

Matt Martin, the baby-faced fourth-liner and quasi-enforcer — you should forgive the expression. It’s his job to safeguard marquee ’mates. He is Matthews’ protector, but also an arm-around for the other high-leverage Leafs.

The Leafs are not a team with top-to-bottom-of-the-roster sand. Upper management has clearly pursued skill over toughness and grit in their drafting methodology, which has brought to Toronto such adept, clever, soft-handed initiates as Mitch Marner and William Nylander — although, interestingly, both have struggled to score goals this year.

Oh sure, the Leafs have their pests who bring the agitator factor to games, lip-flapping and trash-talking opponents into gotcha penalties. It’s not a particularly admirable aptitude.

Enforcers, as they once were, are nearly an extinct breed these days, more so with Thursday’s retirement of Chris Neil after more than a thousand games with Ottawa.

Nobody much likes to talk about it — that guy who “swats away flies,” as Babcock once put it. Mats Sundin had Tie Domi, Wayne Gretzky had Marty McSorley.

In Toronto, the role has been assumed by Martin. But carefully, with discernment.

“It’s hard, right?” says Martin, addressing how that role has evolved, requiring more sophistication and judgment. “Guys are going to take shots at (Matthews), just like they take shots at Sidney Crosby and other top guys in the league. Sometimes just with little cross-checks that don’t get called. In the game against Montreal, he was getting whacked around the ice.’’

Shea Weber, Martin took note, was primarily playing Matthews close and sinisterly. “Obviously, I’m not out there a whole lot against Weber. But you try to get in his face a bit, let him know he can’t do that. With the little cross-checks and stuff, though, it’s hard to do anything about it, especially in today’s game where you have the instigation packages.”

There was a time when the muscle was more forthright. Mess with a star and you’ll get clocked. That opened up ice and time for the likes of a Gretzky, a Sundin. Crosby is somewhat unusual in that he doesn’t need a wingman for the purpose and has fought his own battles.

A team like the Leafs, with low-wattage truculence, is more apt to turn the other cheek and just get on with it when a teammate has been harassed or undue liberties are taken with luminaries. And there will doubtless be more of that for Matthews when he resurfaces on the ice, as the season hits its grinding stride.

“Everyone gets played hard, everyone gets shots,” points out Martin. “I get cross-checked from behind and I don’t like it either. You want to limit the time that it happens. Auston’s a big guy and keeps his composure pretty well. Obviously you don’t want to see him get hurt and it’s been a bit of a tough stretch for him after staying healthy his whole first year. This year he’s had to battle some bumps and bruises, which I’m sure is hard for him.”

Martin received a four-year, $10-million U.S. contract from the Leafs in the summer of 2016 precisely to inhabit that role, with so many talented rookies matriculating on to the big club. Yet the assignment has become much more refined, cunning even, than in days of yore.

“Something can happen in the first period and I’m not on ice until the third period. Then you’re talking premeditated if you respond and the refs are looking for that. If it’s something that happens in the moment and I’m there — say, Auston getting him from behind — then I can react straight away. I might get more leeway in those situations.’’

He has to balance the pros and cons of intervention or payback, negotiating a fine line of legality. “You’ve got to be careful that you’re not costing your team either, spending the night in the penalty box and teams are capitalizing on power plays. It’s a fine line of really doing anything.”

So he brings the hits — No. 5 in that category, league-wide, with 98. But there’s more brass to the job than just hits.

“If guys on your team are getting hit, you go out there and take your shots right back at them on the next shift, send that message right back. That’s what the game’s turned into, for the most part. The rules have changed drastically from the time when guys like Tie played, from when I first started to now even.’’

Still, if more subtly, when Matthews get back, Martin will have his back.

“At the end of the day, you don’t want to be stupid and put your team in a bad situation. But I do want to protect my guys as much as possible.”
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