It’s hard to debate the job that Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has done so far in his fourth season behind the bench in Toronto.
Even without two of the team’s best forwards in William Nylander and Auston Matthews (for a time), Babcock has led the Leafs to an impressive 20-8-0 start, good enough for 40 points and second place in the National Hockey League. However, with Nylander’s return finally imminent — and the team playing some of its best hockey on a current five-game winning streak — Babcock will ultimately be faced with a few tough coaching decisions in the coming days.
Adding a player of Nylander’s caliber automatically makes any team better, as Andrew Berkshire reminds us of the value Nylander brings to this already-stacked group of Maple Leafs forwards. However, there are two sides to every equation, and unfortunately in order to make room for their talented Swede’s roughly 17 minutes a night, a corresponding subtraction must be made from a streaking Maple Leafs team that has won nine of its past 11 games.
So now that Nylander has officially touched down at Pearson Airport in Toronto and Josh Leivo has been traded to the Vancouver Canucks, the question ultimately presents itself: which Maple Leafs forward’s early-season production and ice time is going to take the biggest hit as a result of the young Swede’s arrival?
The most obvious candidate is winger Kasperi Kapanen.
Playing mainly in Nylander’s branded right-wing spot next to Matthews — including overtime 3-on-3 — Kapanen has helped ease Nylander’s absence by scoring a career-high 10 goals in just 28 games, and all have been at even-strength. Before this season, the 2014 Pittsburgh Penguins first-round pick had scored just eight times in 55 career NHL games.
And while it’s clear Kapanen is playing some of the best of hockey of his young career — averaging 16:20 a night — it’s safe to say the 22-year-old would only realistically sustain his early-season scoring rate if he remains on the top line alongside Matthews and Nylander. However, that hasn’t been Babcock’s coaching style in recent years.
The Leafs head coach generally tends to pair his most skilled forwards in duos and rounds out line trios with a different type of playing style — such as Zach Hyman for instance.
But Kapanen has certainly made a case for at least a continued look on the Leafs’ top line and that may still end up being the case if you read into comments Babcock made earlier in the season. At the time the coach challenged Kapanen to play more like Hyman, which could’ve been alluding to a potential top-line fit down the road after Nylander returned.
Since being taken off the Matthews line at the beginning of the season, Tyler Ennis has been turning heads in limited opportunities. Playing 10:26 a night, Ennis has scored four goals and added four assists in 25 games, while consistently creating chances with high-skill plays on the team’s fourth line.
It’s not going to be easy to take minutes away from Ennis, especially with three points in his last four games, but amongst those likely to lose playing time, the former 20-goal-scorer’s skillset is the most similar to Nylander’s.
As it stands, Ennis, who’s centring the team’s second power play unit alongside Andreas Johnsson and Kapanen, may find himself bumped off the Leafs man-advantage entirely when Nylander returns, especially if Kadri is moved off the top unit. Though, in a changing league with a demand for skilled players to get on the ice, it’s possible the 5-foot-9 winger’s playmaking ability and consistency of late may be enough to keep him there.
Andreas Johnsson had a very strong game in a competitive 4-3 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday. Despite being held off the score sheet, the dynamic winger looked dangerous with an extra step to his game.
Like Ennis, Johnsson has looked substantially better of late, capped off by his first period hat trick against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 24. If it wasn’t for this recent strong play, Johnsson may have been the obvious first candidate to lose playing time upon Nylander’s return.
After getting off to a slow start in his first full NHL season, the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs MVP has put up six points in his past five games. Averaging 11:43 a night, Johnsson has scored five goals and added four assists in 23 games this season.
In the AHL last season, Johnsson consistently got better as the year went along. If that is any indication Johnsson will keep improving his production, it’ll be hard for Babcock to take minutes away from the hard-working Swede. If he’s not producing, however, and with Ennis and others such as Connor Brown and Par Lindholm gunning for that playing time, Johnsson’s leash will be short.
This season, Frederik Gauthier has taken his biggest strides as a Toronto Maple Leaf, no pun intended. The 6-foot-5 centre is technically having a career year, tying his career-high in points with just three assists in 23 games, though as Kyle Dubas told us back in 2015, the 23-year-old’s value to this hockey team will never be about producing points.
When Gauthier was called upon with Matthews out injured, the team’s 13th forward was very solid in a refined fourth line role. However, he will have to be better in the faceoff dot if he’s going to earn more playing time, with a winning percentage of just 48.2, down from his previous two seasons.
With Par Lindholm shifting back to the middle of the ice upon Matthews’ return on Nov. 28, the 2013 first-round pick was the first name to be scratched off Babcock’s starting roster and he was pushed even further back on the depth chart when Nylander, who can play centre, signed with the team three days later.
Many thought Gauthier’s time as a Maple Leaf might have even expired after Dec. 1 when Nylander signed just minutes before the 5:00 p.m. ET deadline, but with Leivo nowout of the picture instead, the Quebec-native can still be a valuable member of this hockey team. But as Toronto’s extra forward, it will be difficult for Gauthier to earn more ice time.