Why Maple Leafs' biggest trade need is a winger for Tavares-Nylander

Watch as Sportsnet's Shawn McKenzie is joined by Chris Johnston following the Maple Leafs practice Sunday, they discuss the injury status of goalie's Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell, the recent play of forward Alex Galchenyuk and more.

It’s possible that what the Leafs are getting from Alex Galchenyuk right now – effort and skill and consistent top-six usefulness – is real and not a mirage and something they could continue to get for the rest of the season.

But it’s impossible to feel like it would be a smart plan to rely on it, or even to gamble on it.

By now you know Galchenyuk’s track record, which includes years of declined, ineffective play, causing much-worse teams than the Leafs to cut bait and move on from him. Teams can misread what they have in a player, the fit sometimes just isn’t right, but when you’re a third overall pick with a 30-goal NHL season who’s still 27, and you’re on your fifth team in three seasons, it’s fair to assume there are significant holes in your game.

This is not an article about what Alex Galchenyuk is right now or what he’ll be, as that’s impossible to know. The Leafs' attempt to rehab his game and his fit with them thus far has looked perfect. It’s just important to note that given the established flaws in his play the past few seasons, and the unlikelihood that a half-dozen teams were egregiously wrong about the player, that you don’t want to be relying on him in an important slot in your team’s roster heading into a post-season where you genuinely have Stanley Cup aspirations. You don’t need a guy who can provide a flare of value on that wing, you need a guy who can be trusted to contribute consistently to 16 tough playoff wins. You need a better plan, and then you’d feel great about Galchenyuk being available as an option.

That out of the way, I wanted to look closer at the Leafs forward corps, and what they really need here at the deadline. I keep hearing that they need a “top-six” forward, but I don’t think that’s quite specific enough. What they need is a quality winger for John Tavares and William Nylander, not because those guys haven’t been good, but because they are good. Without someone the team likes playing on that line with them Nylander and Tavares don’t play enough, which neuters the team of its greatest asset -- their four offensive stars.

Nylander has been really effective the past couple games, playing 15:40 and 15:21 in them. Tavares saw 15:04 and 16:34 those nights. Those guys have got a bit more nightly play in March than they did in January, but it’s wasted resources to give nearly $18 million to two players then choose to use them for an average of 18:01 a night (Tavares) and 16:23 per (Nylander).

Part of the problem is the Zach Hyman “issue,” with “issue” being in quotes because he’s been so good you want to play him on two lines -- with Matthews-Marner, and with the third line, which gives you more depth.

When Hyman spends time on the third line, the Leafs like to use that trio in more challenging defensive matchups (against better players), which in theory leaves softer opposition for the likes of the Matthews group, and more specifically for the Tavares group. But when you do that, you ramp up the 5-on-5 ice time for Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall. In nine games where Hyman was designated as a line mate, Engvall averaged 13:23 of ice time per game. In Engvall's other 17 games this season, he's averaged 11:14.

Since you’re never backing off ice time for Matthews/Marner, some of that ice time will occasionally come from Nylander and Tavares' allotment.

I believe that’s called “galaxy-braining,” as per this meme, when the simplest answer -- get the best players on the rink more -- is probably the right one. (Some more PP time would be a good place to start for these guys too, but that’s an article for another day.)

What's peculiar is that Sheldon Keefe alternately wants to use Hyman on the third line or with the guys on the top line, instead of with Tavares/Nylander. I assume it’s because he feels those two are so weak defensively that you’re not going to use them head-to-head against a great offensive group and come out on top, but it would sure answer some tough deployment questions if he gave it some run. With Hyman on the second line, you could trade for a quality third liner (Nick Foligno is probably the dream given his PK ability and physical presence), run Matthews/Marner (with whoever’s going) against basically anybody, have Hyman-Tavares-Nylander face slightly easier competition (but still handle themselves defensively), and assemble a third line you trust to “do the right things.”

If the Leafs want to keep Hyman with Matthews and Marner, giving the third line a player like Foligno puts the Leafs right back where they started. A defensive third line that plays against good players (and so gets a fair amount of ice time), a first line that plays a ton and wins their ice time, and an expensive second line that simply doesn’t play enough. If Toronto adds a top player (say some big name, Taylor Hall or Filip Forsberg) and puts him with Matthews/Marner, you don’t change much. That line can’t play any more minutes and already dominates anyway. The third line would get Hyman and therefore more ice time. I’m not sure that makes the team all that much better.

Which brings me to the simple conclusion that the Leafs' biggest need is specifically a left winger for Tavares/Nylander, not just some top-six put-him-anywhere guy. They need someone who works consistently alongside those two, who has the skill to keep plays from dying on their blade (as Tavares/Nylander keep pucks moving with plenty of small area passes), and who the coach really likes having on the rink. I’ve mentioned Foligno enough times here that I should mention if they did get him or a similar player, he should play with 91 and 88 instead of on the third line, to serve this purpose of finding a way to play them more.

I understand that sometimes teams believe they get more out of their skill players by playing them in fewer minutes against softer competition. Just look at Paul Maurice, the Winnipeg Jets and Nikolaj Ehlers. But the Leafs are constructed a very specific way, with big dollars and talent on top of the roster, and a bunch of guys making much less who should be relied upon to do much less in turn.

Setting themselves up for more Engvall and less Nylander in the playoffs isn’t going to be how their uniquely-built machine powers through. And so, the second line needs help.

If they get help for that roster spot, and are thus able to put Nylander and Tavares on the ice more often, the team is better. Improving lines that already play enough wouldn’t move the needle nearly as much.

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