GRAVENHURST, ONT. – William Nylander is open to the idea, but his coach wants to tap the brakes.
Most notably, Nylander (typically used on the wing) centred an offence-hungry line between undersized camp standouts Nick Robertson and Denis Malgin at cozy Gravenhurst Centennial Centre Wednesday.
“Frankly, I wouldn't read too much into it,” Sheldon Keefe advises.
The head coach explains that while Nylander has the capability to patrol middle ice, he should be viewed as no more than a placeholder for captain John Tavares (oblique injury) at this stage.
That said, Nylander may get his shot at 2C Saturday night during the Maple Leafs’ regular-season dress rehearsal versus Detroit. Moreover, with fellow righty Jason Spezza retiring, Nylander has been taking more defensive-zone draws, including during the penalty kill.
All signs that Keefe sees responsible play without the puck in his own end as the next stage in the 34-goal-scorer’s development.
“If called upon, I’ll be out there. I like it,” says Nylander, 26.
“If he wants me to play centre, I'm gonna play centre. I like playing centre and wing. There's no one I prefer, really.”
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner both point to Nylander’s elite hockey IQ and seemingly effortless stride as tools that will allow him to make the shift from the wing or to the PK when needed.
To our eyes, he’s been Toronto’s most dynamic and consistent forward thus far in exhibition action.
“The ability has on the ice is very high. Stuff he does out there, sometimes it's surprising just how filthy he really is,” Marner says. “So, it's been great seeing him get some opportunities on the kill. He's done a great job at it. He's been asking questions about it. He's kinda taking on whatever role he needs to, and it's been great to see.”
Forward competition coming into focus
One reason Nylander was shifted to centre ice this week is because Keefe wants a hard look at a potential new third line composed of the speedy and versatile Pierre Engvall, Alexander Kerfoot and Calle Järnkrok.
That unit, the Leafs hope, could be used in both checking situations and as a source of secondary scoring.
Of course, health will be key.
Keefe says it looks increasingly likely that Engvall (ankle/foot) will be fully healthy for opening night in Montreal and that while Tavares is still doubtful for next week, the captain has strung together positive solo skates without setback.
With his six defencemen and two goalies all locks, Wednesday’s grey “extra” sweaters worn by Wayne Simmonds, Adam Gaudette, Alex Steeves, Pontus Holmberg, and Kyle Clifford certainly suggested who is trending toward the waivers/Marlies side of the bubble.
“Thinking back to the group that we had this time last season, we had about the same number of forwards out there. But I don't think there was as many guys that I could see starting the season with us. This year, it’s different. And that's very healthy for our club,” Keefe says.
“There's still positions up for grabs; guys are still competing…. We've got two preseason games, so a lot of things can and likely will change.”
Based on their performance in camp, Robertson, Malgin and the yet-to-be-signed Zach Aston-Reese deserve to make the cut.
As Nylander says: “You saw Nick’s pass to me the other night.”
Maple Leafs are for the children
Between the traveling disc jockey’s blaring beats, the rink’s low ceiling, and the hundreds of schoolchildren that flooded the Centennial Centre’s seven rows of bleachers, belting out “Go! Leafs! Go!” chants, Keefe needed to elevate his voice in order for his intructions to be heard.
The noise was welcome.
The Maple Leafs took a similar change-of-scenery break during camp last fall, too, but COVID restrictions prevented the small-town fans from attending these skates.
“It's lots of fun. I mean, you get out there and you just hear the kids yelling,” Nylander says. “So, it's a blast to come out here and practice in front of them.”
You’re not officially cut… yet
While the following Maple Leafs remain on the training camp roster, it’s not exactly an encouraging sign that they were left behind to train in Toronto while the rest of the roster drove north for team bonding and a couple intense practice days.
With Toronto still needing to play out back-to-back preseason games, expect many of these would-be Marlies to skate Friday in Detroit before they get officially trimmed: Mikko Kokkonen, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, Bobby McMann, Joey Anderson, Nick Abruzzese, Marshall Rifai, Mac Hollowell, and Dylan Ferguson.
Wednesday’s practice lines
Bunting – Matthews – Marner
Robertson – Nylander – Malgin
Engvall – Kerfoot – Järnkrok
Aston-Reese – Kämpf – Aubé-Kubel
Extras: Simmonds, Gaudette, Steeves, Holmberg, Clifford
Rielly – Brodie
Muzzin – Holl
Giordano – Sandin
Extras: Kral, Mete