Wayne Simmonds loss shouldn't erase veteran influence guiding Maple Leafs

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TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 6: Wayne Simmonds #24 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks with teammate Auston Matthews #34 during the first period at the Scotiabank Arena on February 6, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 6: Wayne Simmonds #24 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks with teammate Auston Matthews #34 during the first period at the Scotiabank Arena on February 6, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

When the Toronto Maple Leafs made quick work of the Vancouver Canucks again on Saturday night, Auston Matthews demonstrated his appreciation in two ways for one of the team’s newest additions and most respected veterans.

Mostly ultra cool when the puck hits the back the net — especially in a time where there are no fans in the seats to feed energy from — Matthews switched things up when Wayne Simmonds scored by far his most aesthetically-pleasing goal since joining the Maple Leafs.

Matthews was the first to greet Simmonds behind the net after he lifted a vintage shot over the shoulder of Vancouver’s Braden Holtby, and bounced it off the roof of the net. Instead of settling into his teammates’ extended wingspan for the normal reserved acknowledgement of a goal, he leapt into Simmonds’ chest, celebrating the marker like it was scored in a far bigger moment than it actually was.

The reaction would have seemed more out of place if it weren’t the second time in three days that a member — or members — of the Leafs’ blossoming young core became giddy at the sight of a veteran player doing something special on the ice. What it was that truly made Jason Spezza’s hat-trick performance from two nights previous was the reaction of his teammates — something the 37-year-old admitted himself.

Like it was done for Spezza, Matthews reserved praise for Simmonds after the game — one where he matched the veteran with two goals — lauding his teammate’s impact, saying, “he really elevates our competitiveness with the way he plays and the way he leads."

While this was happening, and presumably unbeknownst to Matthews, Simmonds was having his badly injured wrist examined by the medical team.

Almost 48 hours later, the Maple Leafs confirmed that Simmonds would miss the next six weeks to heal a fractured joint.

It’s a shame that Simmonds is to miss significant time. He was starting to really come on following a slow start to the season, scoring five goals in the last six games and helping elevate a ruthless operation on special teams, which for the Leafs is running two units deep.

Joining Joe Thornton (Matthews’ roommate) on the shelf, the injury also takes the second of two veteran players specifically targeted to improve the situation in the room, now out of the room, while further messing with the initial plans head coach Sheldon Keefe had in store in terms of strategy, matchups, and optimization.

That last part is something the Leafs should be able to make up. If anything, they’ve looked even more impressive from an offensive standpoint after being forced to abandon plans to employ a checking unit when filling the void left by Thornton in the top six. And while Simmonds himself might have been the solution in the top two lines, the Leafs have proven to have enough depth to plug holes with the likes of Nic Petan and Travis Boyd emerging from the taxi squad to deliver quality minutes.

But that leadership aspect, and the influence had in the room, will that be lost now that both Simmonds and Thornton are unavailable for the foreseeable future?

There’s an idea that leaders not only have to be present, but must attain a certain level of effectiveness on the ice to carry any influence whatsoever in dressing rooms or benches.

It seems that theory will be put to test over the next few weeks.

Because the feel around the Leafs has seemed far different.

And they don’t seem eager to willfully forget the teachings from two players that have led that marked shift.

And elsewhere in the North:

Montreal Canadiens: Big-time matchups ahead for the Canadiens, who have a home-and-home with the Maple Leafs broken up by a visit from the Oilers before a full week off (insert confused Nick Young gif) before meeting Toronto for a third time. Just a single point separates Montreal and Toronto for pole position in the Canadian division. Get your Twitter fingers ready, fans.

Ottawa Senators: Erik Brannstrom finally cracked the lineup with two games last week and was extremely not Braydon Coburn, Erik Gudbranson or Mike Reilly. The key return asset in the Mark Stone deal finished the two-game set versus Montreal with strong possession numbers and an on-ice individual goal differential of plus three. No excuse to not have him in the lineup this season, even if by chance he was floundering.

Winnipeg Jets: The heat continues to be turned up on Blake Wheeler after head coach Paul Maurice responded to recent criticisms with staunch support of his captain last week. The over-correction on Maurice’s part almost seems telling, but thankfully there will be something new to talk about with Pierre-Luc Dubois officially joining the team this week.

Calgary Flames: It’s homecoming week for several members of the Flames, who switched allegiances from Vancouver to Calgary in the offseason. Boy, have the Canucks missed the likes of Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev in particular, and they could help leave their rivals in ruins with successful returns.

Edmonton Oilers: Games versus Calgary seem like they are going to be so important for the Oilers’ prospects of making the postseason. And it was an awful start to the critical 10-game set (!!) on Saturday night for the Oilers.

Vancouver Canucks: The ease with which the Leafs offence carved Vancouver’s defensive schemes last week was stunning. This team is truly lost from a defensive standpoint, and they belong to the division with arguably the most top-end talent. Not good.

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