TORONTO – It’s one thing to recover from an injury. It’s another to play like you did before it happened.
Wayne Simmonds is at that space in between. The Maple Leafs winger is back four games from a wrist injury suffered on Feb.6 as he found an attacking pace. Since returning, Simmonds has registered an assist and moved from the Toronto front row to his fourth.
“I don’t think I’ve played the best at the moment,” Simmonds said after Sunday practice. “I think my wrist gets better every day. I am able to do different things. I need to be much better. I will be much better. I need to start contributing now that I’m back in training. ”
What that looks like for Simmonds goes beyond the scoresheet. He only scored his first Toronto points for seven games in the season, then tallied five goals in six games before being sidelined (including two against Vancouver the night he was injured).
Simmonds has received an assist since coming back – oddly enough, his first assistant of the season – but the poor performance isn’t what bothers Simmonds about his performances the most.
“It’s not even about points for me,” said Simmonds. “It’s being able to pull as hard as you can, get into the planks and be able to dig and have a hand on my stick and being strong and confident in the wrist. Every day it goes to another level just for the fact that it heals more.
Simmonds has found that his progress has been fairly steady since his return on March 19, although his posting to the roster has been anything but predictable. Coach Sheldon Keefe mixed up Toronto’s top unit Simmonds with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, on the second row with John Tavares and William Nylander, and now at the projected fourth line, next to Pierre Engvall et Ilya Mikheyev.
Over the past four games, Simmonds has averaged 12:54 per game, including 2:32 on the power play, and recorded five shots at the net. That’s a lot, considering how Simmonds initially felt upon his return.
“I think my first two games [back]I probably couldn’t even shoot the puck, ”he said. “But I was able to do other things to contribute to the team. My last two games have been much better, but I have to find my timing here and be better.
Keefe agreed that Simmonds wasn’t quite back yet, not entirely unexpected given the six-week layoff he went through.
“We’ve seen some really good things, where he’s calm with the puck and has a good game, gets on goal,” said Keefe. “We’ve also seen times where you can tell he’s a little late, his timing is wrong, he’s still getting used to playing under pressure. [again] and [dealing with] all of those things that come with the game action. [In a good game], he’s obviously physical and he’s involved and engaged, he’s around the net helping us 5v5 and power play.
Toronto needs all the help it can get right now on the man advantage and Simmonds is emerging as the one who can make an impact.
The Leafs are on a dismal 1-for-22 streak with the extra man in their last 10 games, a 4.6% odds that puts them just ahead of Buffalo for the NHL’s worst power play since March 4.
Despite the time he missed, Simmonds’ three power play goals this season are tied for third on the team. Keefe put him back on Toronto’s first unit right away as a man in goal, but so far Simmonds hasn’t been able to get the Leafs out of their special teams funk.
“Sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re cold, it’s just the nature of the beast,” Simmonds said of the Leafs struggles. “We need more action around the net. The teams tried to take a lot more away from Mitch and Auston, you know, and I think we need to find ways to counter that, and that’s what we’re working on and that’s why you see [John Tavares] go to the slit there so we have another great mid-shot option. ”
It’s a work in progress, just like Simmonds after his injury. With any luck, Simmonds thinks a return to form isn’t too far away.
“I’m pretty close now,” he says. “We are at seven weeks [since the injury], so I’m pretty happy with my wrist progress and it will only get better from here on out.