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Maple Leafs confident players will step up with Tavares out

Kerfoot, Spezza likely to see increased role with center sidelined at least two weeks

by Dave McCarthy / Independent Correspondent

TORONTO -- John Tavares will be out a minimum of two weeks for the Toronto Maple Leafs with a broken finger, creating chances for other players to step up.

"Now everyone is getting an opportunity, there's a whole bunch of guys probably wanted more ice time; now they get more ice time," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said after practice Friday. "When you get the opportunity, it's what you do with it. So we can always adjust the lineup if you're really good and play really well, we can find a way to get you on the ice more."

Alexander Kerfoot and Jason Spezza likely are the two players who will immediately see the biggest changes to their roles. Kerfoot, who has four points (two goals, two assists), practiced between left wing Ilya Mikheyev and right wing Mitchell Marner, and Spezza, who has been a healthy scratch in five of Toronto's eight games, was center on a line with left wing Trevor Moore and right wing Kasperi Kapanen.


[RELATED: Tavares out with broken finger]


"I don't think anyone is going to replace JT, we're going to have to do it as a collective group," Kerfoot said. "I've been playing with Mikheyev every game since I've been here so that will be no different, but obviously Marner is one of the best players in the League so when you get the opportunity to play with him you know there's more responsibility and you have to do a good job."

Spezza, who has one assist in three games, said Tavares' absence could ultimately lead to collective improvement throughout the team.

"It's difficult when you lose your top guy you rely on for a lot of things, but it can also make the team grow because it give different guys opportunities and puts pressure on guys to take more of a focal point," Spezza said. "Then when Johnny is back, guys have gained confidence from that. If you can keep winning when you grow through injuries, it builds the belief in your squad that you're a good team." 

Tavares sustained the injury in a 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals on Wednesday when he was hit in the right hand by a shot from Morgan Rielly. He will be out for at least six games, including when Toronto (4-3-1) hosts the Boston Bruins on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CBC, SN1, NESN, NHL.TV). The Maple Leafs then host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday and visit the Bruins on Tuesday.

"You don't like seeing Johnny get hurt at all, he's a big part of our team, but good teams always have to go through injuries and this will give us a chance for us to prove we can keep winning games without him," Spezza said. "It's an important time for us with a couple games against Boston coming up. It's a tough time to lose a guy like Johnny."

Video: Discussing the impact of Tavares' injury

Auston Matthews, who was center on a line with left wing Andreas Johnsson and right wing William Nylander at practice, could be tasked with going up against the Bruins' top line of Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak more often without Tavares available.

"Somebody is going to get the tough matchups so we have to make sure we play well in our own zone and without the puck especially against their top line," Matthews said."They're really solid and one of the top lines in the League."

Without Tavares on the power play, Nylander is expected to play in his position in the slot with Marner on the left half boards, Matthews on the right half boards, Johnsson at the top of the crease, and Rielly at the blue line. Matthews said the switch could allow him to be more of a passing option.

"Nylander is a right-hander so it's just a little bit different but he's going to be a shot threat especially when the puck is on my side," Matthews said.

Although he hoped to be able to play through the injury, Tavares, who said his finger feels stiff, said the medical staff wants to ensure it heals to the point where it is stable enough to avoid long term risk. However, he is confident in his teammates ability to move forward without him.

"I think the confidence is very high," he said. "A lot of the group that was here last year, we dealt some injuries with some key players and handled it well and a lot of that leadership core is back. We'll be able to deal with that, it's part of the season, there's always ups and downs."

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