When Nylander Returns……

Nov 28, 2018

If Nylander Returns, Lineup Decisions Loom.

The William Nylander saga has a few days to come to a resolution.

The restricted free agent has yet to come to a new contract with his current team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has missed over a quarter of the season, and, if he does not sign a contract by 5:00 PM Eastern, December 1st, he will be forced to sit out the rest of the year from playing in the NHL.

That is probably not the best option for a young 22 year old player who’s game is still growing and who needs to play to continue to get better.

But, sometimes a stalemate happens between player and team when it comes to negotiating a new contract, where they can only agree to disagree.

There are a few options available for Nylander and the Leafs:

Nylander can sign with the Leafs.

Nylander can sit out and stay away from the NHL the entire season.

Nylander can sign with another team and force the Leafs to either match it or accept draft pick compensation.

Nylander can get traded and sign with the new team he is traded to.

Now, what he signs for is anyone’s guess. That is obviously the crutch of the situation. He can sign long term, the maximum 8 years or can sign a 1 or 2 year bridge deal. Or, he can sign something in between. Whether that is with Toronto or someone else, he is obviously sticking to his guns and trying to get the maximum amount out of his contract.

You can’t really blame the player for that. A player may get 1 or 2 chances to cash in on a long term, rich contract. Its clear Nylander wants to try and hit the home run on this deal.

But sitting out is a huge risk, both professionally and financially and so less believe he will walk away from the season.

There is talk though that a deal will be made by the deadline. Many are fairly confident Nylander will resume playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. This includes Mike Babcock who all but assured Nylander would be back on the Leafs roster.

While of late there was some trade talk and plenty of rumours to go around putting Nylander on a variety of teams with the Leafs maybe filling some other needs, it may be best at the end of the day for Nylander to find his place in the Leaf lineup.

If that is indeed the case, well where do they place him?

The Leafs have not just him, but Auston Matthews to fit into this lineup that has maintained top 5 in the NHL status without 2 of its best players. They are 4 games over .500 without Matthews who has missed 14 games. Its an absolutely ridiculously good problem to have to be going strong missing parts of your top line.

Many teams in the league employ a big time top line and then hope the rest of the team can chip in as much as they can. There are a few teams, Colorado, Dallas, Boston to name some, who rely heavily on their top line to score 40-50 percent of the team’s goals.

The Leafs, with a full roster, could really have 3 lines that could be top lines on many teams around the league. This was really the play all along when the team signed John Tavares, where they could fill out a lineup with tremendous depth and skill and create matchup problems for opponents by having them clueless on which line to defend against.

Coach Babcock has patiently waited to deploy a lineup where one of their 3 top lines would face team’s 3rd or 4th lines and 3rd defence pairs. Its an advantage he is hoping to take through the last 50 games or so in the season and playoffs.

So, who will play with who? That is a question that has endless possibilities. Lets looks at some of them:


Option 1: Easy

Tyler Ennis – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Patrick Marleau – Nazem Kadri – Kasperi Kapanen
Andreas Johnsson – Par Lindholm – Connor Brown

Spares: Fredrik Gauthier, Josh Leivo

This is the easiest scenario whereby 2 of the 4th line players are replaced by Matthews and Nylander while the rest of the lineup remains intact. The top 3 lines currently have been rolling pretty good so to keep them together, it would be easy to not disrupt chemistry. Considering Ennis has played better of late, maybe he gets a shot on the top line again while hoping the rest of the lineup plays as they have been. If that happens, that would be a dangerous team with potentially 4 lines going. Leivo could slide in for Ennis instead to add more size to that group, while not taking too much away from skill.


Option 2: The Beginning

Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Andreas Johnsson – Nazem Kadri – Kasperi Kapanen
Josh Leivo – Par Lindholm – Connor Brown

Spares: Fredrik Gauthier, Tyler Ennis

This was probably what the team had in mind to start when Tavares signed. The plan was to move Marleau with Matthews and slide Hyman down with Tavares and Marner. Then Kadri would get a mix of the rest of the players in the lineup with instead of Johnsson and Kapanen on the 4th line, based on how they’ve played, they would move up to play with Kadri. Like all their lineups, this would offer a lot of scoring among the Leafs top 3 lines.


Option 3: Balance

Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – Kasperi Kapanen
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Andreas Johnsson – Nazem Kadri – William Nylander
Par Lindholm – Fredrik Gauthier – Connor Brown

Spares: Josh Leivo, Tyler Ennis

Another option would be for Babcock to spread his 3 best young players on 3 different lines. With Matthews on one line, Marner on the 2nd and Nylander anchoring the 3rd, Its basically 3 top line players spread around the lineup to create the big matchup problems most coaching dream about, and opposing coaches dread. On any given night or time in the game, any one of the 3 number 1 lines would face the opposing team’s 3rd defence pairing.


Option 4: More Balance

Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – Kasperi Kapanen
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Tyler Ennis – Nazem Kadri – William Nylander
Andreas Johnsson – Par Lindholm – Connor Brown

Spares: Josh Leivo, Fredrik Gauthier

Basically the only difference here is a 4th line capable of generating more offence with their speed. They’ve actually shown that of late with the absentees they’ve had. There would be tremendous footspeed to go with skill on all 4 units creating a lot of headaches allowing the team to balance out ice time on any given night and keep everyone fresh for the playoffs and down the stretch. One of the big things for Babcock is work ethic and pushing the pace. They could do that here if firing on all cylinders.


Option 5: Fully Loaded

Kasperi Kapanen – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Patrick Marleau – Nazem Kadri – Connor Brown
Par Lindholm – Fredrik Gauthier – Tyler Ennis

Spares: Josh Leivo, Andreas Johnsson

While they still maintain balance, basically their top 5 offensive weapons are spread among the first 2 lines. And they’d still have Kadri/Marleau on a 3rd unit that can easily be capable of scoring a few goals. The speed of the top line with both Nylander and Kapanen will certainly be a problem for teams and it would pose for an interesting dilemma for opposing coaches on which line and defence pair to battle against which Leaf’s top line.


Option 6: What’s Old Is New

Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Patrick Marleau – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Par Lindholm – Nazem Kadri – Kasperi Kapanen
Josh Leivo – Fredrik Gauthier – Connor Brown

Spares: Tyler Ennis, Andreas Johnsson

Hyman, Matthews and Nylander for the most part had success together and could be reunited again. That would put Marleau and Marner back together again. Again with the depth provided by Kadri and Kapanen, there will be scoring depth throughout the lineup. Whatever the case may be, it will be more matchup problems for opponents.


Option 7: All Eggs In Two Baskets

Nazem Kadri – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Patrick Marleau – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Zach Hyman – Par Lindholm – Kasperi Kapanen
Tyler Ennis – Fredrik Gauthier – Connor Brown

Spares: Josh Leivo, Andreas Johnsson

Its not likely but possible for the Leafs to load up two big lines with their top 6 forwards. It could really be any combination of them and it could work. Kadri, Matthews and Nylander did play together for a bit when Babcock wanted a loaded line out there after a penalty kill. The true role players would be on the bottom 6 as most teams operate. But, then again, most teams don’t have this kind of depth to spread around.

Its interesting to dig deep into the numbers to see which combos seem to work best with each other.

This season, the most consistently together trio has been Tavares with Marner and Hyman. As a line, they have a combined 52.65% Corsi for and a total of 72 points over 25 games together. More than half the time they are starting in the offensive zone and they as a group are controlling the play better than they are as individuals. It would probably be hard for the team to break that up at this point.

Historically though, the trio of Matthews with Nylander and Hyman have played 133 games together with great results. The last 2 years they’ve combined for 322 points with Matthews missing 20 games. Their Corsi For together is a strong 53%. They’ve been deployed much more in offensive zone starts but, did too play at times a defensive role. 5 on 5, they actually scored 20 more goals than they gave up playing together. So, with that success, maybe that line gets reborn.

This season we’ve seen some new combos due to new arrives like the current 3rd line of Lindholm with Brown and Johnsson. They’ve not necessarily been world beaters in terms of the advanced status, but most importantly, they’ve been a +3 in 16 games 5 on 5. The real key for the coaching staff is them putting on their work boots and coming out ahead on the plus/minus. Especially true if from time to time they’re deployed to check the other team’s top lines. They did a great job the one game vs Columbus and Pierre Luc Dubois, Cam Atkinson and Artemi Panarin for 2 periods after that line torched the Leafs.

The 4th line of Gauthier with Leivo and Ennis has been extra productive. In limited minutes they have a perfect 4 goals and zero against as a line through 19 games together and have at times really done an excellent job keeping the play in the offensive zone with the cycle. Due to lineup arrivals, that line will likely be broken up. But, as depth players, they’ve kind of overachieved at this point with their steady play.

In a smaller sample, its interesting to see the comparison between Kadri with Marleau and Kapanen vs the line of Matthews with Marleau and Kapanen.

After a couple games, Kapanen was promoted to the line with Matthews this year and the results were good. He instantly found some chemistry and started to create more offence for the group. This even with Matthews off to a scorching start. The line was +4 between goals for and against. They had a sound 51% Corsi For. They combined for 27 points in 10 games. They were pretty dynamic, especially the speed of Kapanen with Matthews. One noticeable thing too was Matthews having the puck much more, being the puck carrier and distributor as well as being the dangerous scorer he always has been. Its slightly different than the setup with Nylander who was more the puck carrier and distributor of the group.

On the other hand, after the injury to Matthews, Kapanen and Marleau eventually joined Kadri on a new look line that, in the past, has seen some time together. Marleau and Kadri have basically been together for over a year with a series of different right wingers. Kapanen the latest. The results have sort of been mixed as the big offensive numbers have not been there. but Marleau was better playing with Kadri, perhaps due to the familiarity. The fact of the matter is there is just a lot of talent so after a while, the numbers start to reflect that. Kadri, who has kind of slumped in terms of goals, got a bevy of chances with this line last game and seems poised to break out. Kapanen seems to create on his own with his speed. Whether they get a chance to continue on or be broken up, its quite good to know players can easily be thrown back together knowing there has been some past success.

It truly is a great problem Babcock and his staff have lying ahead for them. Finding the ice time, the situations and combinations to put together to run out there against some pretty tough opponents who will be diligently planning how to stop this potential offensive juggernaut.

And it only possibly gets better in terms of scoring more goals. With the potential to spread talent across 3 different lines, We could see teams having a lot of problem, should the Leafs give max effort, defending and slowing down the offence. It may lead to more penalties which really the Leafs would be better served drawing. The Leafs are currently 30th in power play opportunities. Perhaps that is by design, as teams do not want to face that vaunted power play, but if the Leafs manage to draw a few more chances, they could finally deploy the “Death Lineup” that was featured a bit early this season.

With the return of Matthews and Nylander we could see the loaded power play or power plays that everyone has been dreaming about. They’re clicking at 25 percent, good for a spot in the top 10, but there is so much potential for way more production once everyone is back and getting use to eachother once again.

With the potential return for Nylander, where would he stand? Would he be the go-to guy for the second unit? Or will he find a spot on the first with all the Leafs biggest stars?

It would be quite an interesting lineup to see Nylander join Matthews, Tavares, Marner and Morgan Reilly as a 5 man group. It is an option and if that happens, it would be fascinating to see where the players would be deployed.

The original top unit had Kadri in there in place of Nylander. Kadri worked the slot area and a bit down low providing a net presence which Nylander could employ. But likely Nylander could take the spot Matthews has on the left flank and Matthews rovers in the slot area and around the net with Tavares. With Marner already on the right side up high, where Nylander has been accustomed to playing, it would be an adjustment that these talented players could make work.

If Nylander instead is deployed leading the second unit, he will man his regular right point position beside Jake Gardiner. With the 3 big centres on the top group, that means Marleau becomes the centre and net presence for this unit with Kapanen being on the left wing. The final member of the group will depend on who’s in the lineup. Is it Ennis? Is it Johnsson? Is it Leivo? Would it be someone else? Either way, that unit is probably as good as many other team’s top power play.

You can tell why GM Kyle Dubas declared “We can and we will” when asked if he could keep everyone together. The reason is at the end of the day, the team is better when everyone is available.

Sure, a trade to alleviate the potential cap problems and lineup logjam, filling in needs in other areas, could be done. But the decisions this team has made in how they’ve built their organization, the players they look for, the way they play, it all comes back to trying to field the deepest lineup that has the most speed and skill to deploy across multiple lines and with a variety of combinations.

The window to win is never infinite. The window actually is not that big or long to begin with. So, in the time you have, you try and accumulate the best players and the best lineups as fiscally possible and keep trying to improve it as time goes along, finding the right mix to win the game’s ultimate prize

Well Matthews will return very soon. Superstar player and major difference maker. Nylander? Another star who can make a huge impact? Can that be added to what the Leafs have? We’re all betting he will to complete part of this ever emerging puzzle.

Contributing Writers

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