ABBOTSFORD, B.C. - Matt Lashoff is the kind of leader every team needs. The quality made him so endearing that the then-injured Toronto Marlies defenceman began travelling with the team at the onset of their playoff run solely for that reason.
After playing 11 games with the Maple Leafs toward the end of last season, the former first round pick was hoping to be among the team's first AHL call-ups this season.
Those hopes were dashed after injuring his knee during a game at the end of October on what Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins called a "questionable hit." A resulting torn anterior cruciate ligament required surgery followed by gruelling rehab, which he completed in just over six months. Typical recovery is between eight and 12 months.
"Once the injury happened, it was a pretty big shock to my system," said the 25-year-old. "I pretty much focused on setting my mind set straight, once I got the surgery, to work hard and I gave myself the goal of coming back for the playoffs."
Still rehabbing as the playoffs began, Eakins made the unusual request to Lashoff of asking him to re-join the team despite his inability to play.
"I want those guys around ...," said Eakins, after the Marlies advanced past the Abbotsford Heat on Wednesday with a 3-2 win to take the second-round series in five games.
"That's a guy that has a new baby at home. Knowing that when he's not playing, he'd rather be at home with his wife and new baby, he knows the importance of leadership, he bought into that."
Lashoff began participating in full practice early during the playoffs with hopes of getting into a game, but odds weren't great.
"When the playoff roster did come out, from the doctors' point of view, there was no chance of me coming back and that's a tough thing, not to be able to be relied on on a day-to-day basis," he said.
There's wasn't much room for Lashoff on an already deep defence corps.
With Marlies stalwarts Korbinian Holzer, Juraj Mikus and Simon Gysbers playing well and joined for the playoffs by Leafs rookie sensation Jake Gardiner as well as talented rookie Jesse Blacker, it seemed likelier Lashoff would get his first taste of game action in training camp.
"I was convinced I was ready," said Lashoff. "My body felt good, my knee felt good. Any time you miss that amount of time, it's going to be tough to come back no matter what the situation and obviously it was a little bit bigger of a test coming into a second round series. I obviously had to attack it the right way but I felt it went well."
Lashoff could have packed it in and used the summer to further rehabilitate his rebuilt knee, but instead the pending restricted free agent wanted to assure both himself and potential future employers that he was medically sound.
His moment arrived in Game 4 against Abbotsford when Eakins inserted Lashoff into the lineup for his first game action in 191 days. He acquitted himself well, finishing with an even rating with two penalty minutes, but his off-ice intangibles outweighed his contributions on the score sheet.
"I had a lot of confidence in him, so I had absolutely no reservations," said Eakins. "He's a veteran guy that has worked extremely hard to come back from a real tough injury. The other thing about Lashoff is he's a great leader. He's a guy that you want in your dressing room, a part of your team."
Lashoff was in street clothes again the following night when the Marlies clinched the series. Eakins erred on the side of caution, but the coach was happy just to have the now-healthy defender in the team environment.
Lashoff is quick to sing his coach's praises. Eakins forged a niche as a rough-and-tumble player through an 18-year professional career and has endeared himself to his players as a coach.
"He was a guy that was right by my side when I got hurt and throughout the rehab process he was a guy I could lean on if I wanted to do certain stuff rehab-wise or workout-wise," said Lashoff.
"He was there pushing me and keeping me positive throughout the whole thing."
Lashoff has 16 points in 74 career NHL games since being chosen 22nd overall in the 2005 draft by the Boston Bruins, and is still young enough to contribute in a depth role to an NHL team.
But with the Leafs' blue-line seemingly full and the Marlies boasting NHL-ready options in Holzer and Blacker, Lashoff's future with the organization seems cloudy.
Still, getting that first game out of the way and no longer having the prospect of an uncertain summer of rehab hanging over his head is a relief.
"That's a huge thing mentally for myself. It was huge not only for contract status but for my own healthy mindset ...," he said. "I can come in next season and be strong and not worrying about doing simple little things for your knee and compensating. I can actually go to the gym and have a normal summer."