TORONTO – There are two questions here, and they’re intertwined.
And how badly does Nylander himself want to become one?
“For me, it’s wherever Mike wants me to play,” Nylander dodged. “If he wants me to play centre, I’ll play centre. If he wants me on the wing, I’ll play on the wing.”
OK. But what about two or three seasons from now? Do you have a desire to grow into that role?
“I like playing wing and centre, so for me, it’s wherever he wants me to play,” Nylander said.
That response contrasts sharply with Matthews’ Day One ass
With the Matthews injury thrusting his lines in flux yet again, Babcock said he did consider testing Nylander up the middle, as he did when Matthews left Monday’s morning skate early, but ultimately skated Nylander on the right side of the Nazem Kadri–Leo Komarov duo.
“I don’t know what we’re doing tomorrow,” the coach said of Matthews’ unknown status for the Minnesota Wild game. “We practised like this today. I wasn’t in love with it by any means.”
The coach appears less in love with a Nylander-at-centre experiment.
Patrick Marleau, a wing with previous centre experience, has gotten a look in the middle, and Tuesday the club recalled Marlies pivot Frederik Gauthier with Matthews’ status uncertain.
And yet the prospect of Nylander eventually shifting to middle ice dangles out there.
“I see Willie as a centre for sure,” Babcock once said, but that was way back in February.
Before Matthews-Nylander established themselves as the offensive equivalent of baking soda and vinegar.
Before Babcock’s locker cleanout address in April, when the coach clearly shut down any notion of Nylander playing anything but wing.
A promising note for the “Move Willie to C!” camp of fans? The Leafs have deployed the right shot on strong-side faceoffs this fall, and the results have been favourable.
Nylander won just 49 of 122 draws (40.2%) during his rookie campaign. We’re only 16 games deep, and he’s already won 69 of 129 for an impressive 53.5% success rate—better, even, than Matthews’ 50.3%.
But when we asked Nylander Tuesday if he and Babcock have ever discussed the possibility of eventually changing his position, the player said, “Oh, no. No.”
It’s a question bound to resurface whenever the Maple Leafs face an injury up the middle, and one that will become more pressing when Tyler Bozak’s contract expires on July 1.
“We could still have more depth at centre,” Babcock has said on more than one occasion.
When healthy, Hyman-Matthews-Nylander (HNM Line, anyone?) has been the most trusted and unaltered Leafs combo up front, but even that trio was dismantled toward the end of last week’s rough road trip.
Watch Morgan Rielly motioning and yelling at Nylander to cover his point man, Brayden Schenn, on the Joel Edmundson goal. Watch Nylander not bust out to the point:
Surely, Babcock saw it. He knocked Nylander down to the fourth line. The 21-year-old finished skating just 16:10 in St. Louis, his lowest ice time since opening night.
“[Matthews’] group is always good,” Babcock told reporters in St. Louis post-game, before throwing a little shade. “Matty and Hyman were really good, should say.”
Rielly was asked specifically about that unfortunate highlight and his effort to get Nylander in the right spot.
“Whether you’re a D-man or a forward, you have to do your job,” Rielly explained. “We’re not worried about it. We know we can be better in all areas of the game, and that’s what we have to do moving forward.”
Nylander said he took the temporary demotion to heart.
“Once the coach puts you back there after a tough game, you gotta wake up and show you want to play there [on the top line],” Nylander said. “Maybe part of the competing and stuff hasn’t been the way it was from the beginning of the year, so I have to pick it up there.”
This example isn’t made to pick on Nylander — an elite talent with 12 points through 16 games, positive possession metrics, and a plus-10 rating — but it is here to understand the Leafs’ hesitancy to hand their star forward more defensive responsibility.
Nylander says he’s been switching “all the time, back and forth” from centre to wing since he first picked up a hockey stick. He played the middle in Sweden, in his sophomore AHL season with the Marlies, and even during his brief Leafs trial in 2015-16.
In the Matthews Era, however, he’s been affixed to the wing. Curiosity wants us to see just how Nylander would fare in the middle now, and an injury could give us a sneak peek of the future.
“[Playing centre] is a different kind of game,” he told me Tuesday. “You get the puck more as a centre in the middle of the ice and distribute the puck. On the wing, it’s not so much focused on defence. You just have to make sure you have your defenceman in the D-zone.
“There’s more defence when you’re a centre.”
Ah. That may be the rub.
“If there’s one thing about Willie, if he competes, he’s going to have the puck a lot and be dangerous,” Babcock said. “He got off to a good start. This last segment, just like our team, he fit in good and wasn’t as competitive as he needs to be.”