When Auston Matthews returns and if William Nylander returns, someone is going to find themselves sitting in the press box. Deciding who the Toronto Maple Leafs odd man out will be is going to be difficult for Mike Babcock but fun for Maple Leafs fans.
Toronto Maple Leafs Odd Man Out A Tough Decision
Strength Up The Middle
The Maple Leafs have two top-six centres playing now in John Tavares and Nazem Kadri. Par Lindholm has taken third line centre duties in Matthews’ absence. He was playing on the wing prior to Matthews’ injury. The Maple Leafs have a couple options at centre when Matthews returns to the top six and Kadri is bumped back to the third line.
One option is Lindholm could slip down to fourth line centre. That would either bump Frederik Gauthier to the wing, or the press box. Gauthier went the first fifteen games without a single point. He has two assists in his past four games now. But Gauthier isn’t expected to score points, he is supposed to be a shutdown center. Gauthier and Lindholm have similar Corsi statistics and both start a lot of shifts in the defensive zone. But Lindholm has an advantage over Gauthier on faceoffs. Gauthier is winning just 47.9 percent of his faceoffs while Lindholm is winning 55.8 percent. Odds are Lindholm will take over fourth line centre duties.
The other option is to put Lindholm back on Kadri’s wing and keep Gauthier as the fourth line center. One of Lindholm or Gauthier is going to be the fourth line center when Matthews returns. If it’s Lindholm, it’s hard to argue Gauthier should keep a place on the wing in front of Tyler Ennis of Josh Leivo. Gauthier will also need to clear waivers to be sent to the Toronto Marlies so it’s a likely candidate for press box duty, whether Nylander returns or not.
The Return Of William Nylander
Most parties are still confident Nylander will suit up for the Maple Leafs this season. Assuming he does, he’ll enter the line up as a winger. Nylander may have a future as a centre, perhaps even in the near future, if there are more injuries. But unless the team is forced to put him in the middle, Nylander will be a winger.
If Nylander plays on Matthews’ wing, which is likely, it will have a domino effect on the rest of the lines. The first question is who will play on the left side. One option is Patrick Marleau and another is Kasperi Kapanen. Marleau played well with Kadri last year, and while he’s looked better of late than the beginning of the season, he’s better suited in the bottom six at this point of his career. On top of that, Kapanen has been excellent so far this season. Kapanen has 16 points in 22 games and has the speed to forecheck effectively, which would suit Nylander and Matthews.
That would put the top six as this:
Kapanen – Matthews – Nylander
Hyman – Tavares – Marner
The Third Line
Ths next difficult question is what the third line will look like. It could be Marleau and Kadri with Connor Brown filling in the right side. Or if Marleau stays on a line with Matthews, the third line could see Kapanen return to his natural right said and Andreas Johnsson could take right wing on the thirds line. Johnsson has looked better recently than he did earlier this season, but he’s been a healthy scratch a few times this year and has only three points in 17 games.
At least for now, the third line could look like this:
Marleau – Kadri – Brown
But if Johnsson can find his scoring touch, and Marleau can hold his own in the top six, Brown could be relegated to the fourth line. That would make for a third line that looks like this:
Johnsson – Kadri – Kapanen (with Marleau moving up to Matthews’ left side.)
So Who’s Out?
However the top three lines shake out, the fourth line will consist of three of Gauthier, Brown, Johnsson, Ennis, and Leivo. Johnsson is already on a short leash and could find himself on a rotation with Ennis and Leivo, but he looks to be getting back to where he was last season. If we assume Johnsson remains either on the third or fourth line that puts either Ennis and Leivo in the pressbox or Gauthier and one of Ennis or Leivo.
The fourth line could look like this:
Johnsson – Lindholm – Ennis/Leivo
Ennis/Leivo – Lindholm – Brown
If Lindholm drops to fourth line centre, a rotation of Ennis and Leivo makes sense, with Gauthier waiting in the wings as a depth centre.
An idea line up that keeps players on their proper side, mostly, which is something Babcock likes, would look something like this:
Marleau – Matthews – Nylander
Hyman – Tavares – Marner
Johnsson – Kadri – Kapanen
Ennis/Leivo – Lindholm – Brown
Assuming Nylander plays with Matthews right away. The questions that don’t yet have answers are if Babcock wants to keep Marleau or Kapanen with Matthews when Nylander returns. And if Johnsson can earn a place in the top nine. Those are the two biggest lineup questions facing the team as Matthews nears his return and a resolution, one way or another, to the Nylander saga gets closer.
Most speculation is that if Nylander is traded, it would be for a defenceman. If that happens, it probably means Ennis or Leivo will see more playing time. It would also mean Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev drop down the lineup and Igor Ozhiganov gets into fewer games.
But it would also make sense for Toronto to trade Nylander for a left winger. Vladimir Tarasenko is rumoured to be at odds with the St. Louis Blues. Probably, Tarasenko isn’t going anywhere, but a trade between the Maple Leafs and Blues might make sense in a situation like this. And there may be other similar options out there that Kyle Dubas is considering. If Nylander is traded for a top-six left winger, that would push Marleau down the lineup and allow Kapanen to stay on Matthews right side. It’s probably less likely than trading for a defenceman, but if Dubas is looking to trade Nylander at all, his first priority is to trade for value. It may be easier to make that trade forward for forward.
The Maple Leafs still need help on the right side of the blue line. But if Nylander either signs or is traded for another forward, it may help Dubas deal for a defenceman from a better position. One that is without the threat of a December 1st deadline.