Why Maple Leafs are challenging William Nylander to play centre in contract year

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe discusses William Nylander starting training camp at the centre position, saying he's talked to the eight-year veteran about the change and he's "fully on board."

TORONTO — They are running it back… only in a slightly different formation.

Following this group’s seventh playoff series defeat in eight attempts, new Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving didn’t pink-slip the head coach. He didn’t trade a core player, overhaul the defence corps or go fetch a marquee goaltender.

No. What Treliving did was tweak a few members of the supporting cast and rearrange the pieces on the chessboard. The GM is betting that a fresh perspective from up top, maturing talent, and a coach with financial security can translate into meaningful change between the whistles.

Despite all those post-season disappointments, Toronto rolled out coach Sheldon Keefe and his familiar foursome of leaders — captain John Tavares and alternates Morgan Rielly, Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner — on Day One of training camp Wednesday.

All five men were ardent supporters and, dare we say, friends of former GM Kyle Dubas. All five survived the sudden transition and, yes, another underwhelming playoff exit to arrive optimistic. And together.

“The page turned quickly,” Tavares said of Treliving taking the reins.

An excitement — and, quite possibly, relief — shot through the group.

As for the springtime pain? Deboarding one roller coaster and strapping in again with the same crew?

“It just builds a trust and a bond that’s very deep,” Tavares explained. “Anything that we do, there’s a real trust and honesty there that we know we’re all coming from the right place and doing everything we can to help this team win.”

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Not speaking Wednesday but still very much integral to Toronto’s nucleus is William Nylander — who will enter 2023-24 at the centre of club storylines.

And at centre ice.

Yes, in his eighth NHL campaign, Nylander will get his first extended run to take hold of a centreman’s role — a refreshing challenge as he barges into a critical contract year.

The idea was Treliving’s, but both Keefe and the player are on board.

“Willy can do whatever he puts his mind to. He’s that good. I push Willy more because I really do believe in his ability,” Keefe said. “It’s not going to be a one-off or a one-day thing or one pre-season game. We want to give it some time.”

One failing of the Dubas-constructed editions of this team was the utility of its third and fourth lines. The lines were too top-heavy, the superstars too taxed.

Shifting Nylander to centre, behind Matthews and Tavares, theoretically creates three lines that can score and smartly bumps David Kämpf to 4C, where the defensive-minded pivot is better slotted.

The trick, of course, is making sure Nylander is up for the task.

“I really think he’s built to play in Toronto,” said Tavares, who believes in his teammate and his chances of re-signing.

“Willy made tremendous strides, I think, throughout my whole time here. He’s such a special and unique talent, and he’s obviously someone we want to be here for a long time. He’s stated that as well. There’s lots of time here.”

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Nylander was drafted as a centre and played middle for the Marlies, reminded Keefe. The coach has only sporadically or out of necessity used the winger in that position at the NHL level.

Nylander is a career 50.7 per cent faceoff man but only won 42.4 per cent of his draws last season. The 40-goal dynamo is generally sheltered defensively, and your uncle will be the first one to point out every shift in which he dogs it on the backcheck.

Moreover, if Matthews and Marner are making magic on the top line, can a 33-year-old Tavares (open to playing wing as well) thrive on a line without Marner’s playmaking and without Nylander’s smooth puck transportation and finishing touch?

Indeed, how the top nine shakes out will be a key storyline in 2023-24.

So, too, will be Nylander’s unsettled contract extension.

“It’s obviously a priority. We want to get Willy signed. We’ll try to get it done,” said Treliving, who has taken a quick liking to the player. “He’s a cool cat. He’s a really neat kid.

“There’s not a lot that bothers this guy. It can be misinterpreted. This guy really does care. He cares about having success.”

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Whether Toronto’s long-elusive team success manifests itself in 2023-24 depends on the execution of the same well-known protagonists — and how they adapt to Treliving’s vision.

And whether that vision is clearer or just different than his predecessor’s is what we’ll begin to find out.

“This is a driven, driven group. It’s a serious group. They’re very committed to their craft,” Treliving said.

“We’ve gotten to know each other. Now we’re looking forward to going on this journey together.”

One-Timers: In further tinkering news, Keefe is entertaining the idea of using Matthews on the penalty kill more: “When it comes to a player of Auston’s calibre, it’s not a question of can he do it. It’s a matter of how it would affect the team.”… Jake Muzzin (neck) will not participate in the 2023-24 season, his final one under contract with the Maple Leafs…. Matt Murray will undergo surgery next week for an undisclosed ailment. The procedure will require months of rehabilitation…. An injured Bobby McMann has not been cleared to participate fully in camp…. Tavares and Marner both kept their comments on Mike Babcock’s resignation in Columbus short, preferring to focus on their current team.

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