Don’t expect Maple Leafs’ Matthews back until next week at earliest

There is some encouragement to be found in the sight of Auston Matthews on the ice at practice with his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates. But until they’re allowed to hit him, any talk of his return remains highly speculative.

Matthews needs to feel comfortable with contact before we see him in a game again.

There’s no reason to believe that will come any sooner than next week after Matthews donned the dreaded red sweater at Monday’s practice. The team skates again Tuesday, but likely won’t hold another full practice beyond that until after a three-games-in-four-days stretch against Dallas (Wednesday), Buffalo (Thursday) and Montreal (Saturday).

Once Matthews reaches the point where his healing shoulder is ready to be bumped, some of that work can be done in 1-on-1 sessions with the strength coach. But Mike Babcock has also made it clear that he’s looking for his top centre to be a fully engaged participant in contact drills at practice before his hopes get raised about a return.

That points to next Tuesday’s visit to Tampa as the earliest No. 34 might play, and even then, there’s an argument to be made about the wisdom in holding him out for road games against the Lightning and Nashville Predators on March 22.

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