Everyone seems to be thinking about what players the Toronto Maple Leafs might bring to the team during the offseason. However, there might be a move the Maple Leafs might consider that’s internal. And, for long-time Maple Leafs’ fans, it’s not such a stretch.
Right now the team has two really good centers. Auston Matthews is All-World and had a season for the ages this year when he won the Rocket Richard Trophy by leading the NHL in goal scoring. He also has recently been nominated for the Ted Lindsay Award as the NHL’s best player as voted by his peers (the other NHL players) and the Lady Byng Award as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player combined with his on-ice skill.
The other center is John Tavares. Tavares is a fine center and still very productive; however, as he ages and his skating speed slows, moving him to a wing position might be an alternative. The Tampa Bay Lightning did just that when they moved Steven Stamkos to the wing from the center. If it worked with the Lightning, why couldn’t it work with the Maple Leafs?
The Maple Leafs’ New Second-Line Center Might Already Be There
Who would take Tavares’ place as the second-line center? In fact, he’s already there – William Nylander. Is it time to resurrect the idea that Nylander could and should be an NHL center?
Those who recall Nylander being drafted by the Maple Leafs as the eighth overall choice during the 2014 NHL Entry Draft also remember that he was originally drafted as a center. Or, perhaps more correctly, it was thought Nylander would soon be moved to center when Tyler Bozak was traded during that summer. Even then coach Mike Babcock discussed that as the plan in February 2017.
Nylander had some experience at center before he played in his first NHL game. In fact, during his second season with the Toronto Marlies, Nylander played center. His skill and his ability to set up his wingers wasn’t an issue, but two things happened. First, the positional demands were greater in the NHL compared with the AHL. Second, the Maple Leafs won the draft lottery to the tune of Matthews. And, when Nylander found chemistry feeding Matthews during that first season together, the die was cast. Nylander was a winger – at least for then.
Is It Now the Right Time for a Nylander Move?
But have times changed? Has Nylander matured enough to handle the defensive responsibilities? Does it make sense to move Tavares to wing and his young Swedish partner to center – or even move the two around from time to time and treat the 2021-22 season as a moment of transition?
There’s no doubt that, since Nylander arrived on the scene full-time in 2016-17, he’s spent his time playing wing. However, he’s filled in at center, most notably when Matthews missed time with injury. There was even a review of his time at center early in 2018, and the jury was mixed.
Nylander was expected to become a center after he was drafted and he’s played centre before with the Maple Leafs. The question for now is “Would the Maple Leafs be a better team with Nylander at center and Tavares at wing?”
My call is that such a move has probably already been considered and might be coming in the foreseeable future. At least, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some experimenting with it during the 2021-22 season.
Might There Be Another Candidate for the Center Position on the Maple Leafs?
Interesting, in 2018, The Hockey Writers’ Peter Ferrell wrote “On the other, the Maple Leafs should be wary of turning him (Nylander) into Alex Galchenyuk. For the uninitiated, the Montréal Canadiens have refused to allow Galchenyuk to develop properly as a centre, and then justified their decision to keep him on the wing by complaining he hasn’t developed properly as a centre.”
Perhaps it’s time to revisit the original plans for Nylander; or, should I have switched the names of Nylander and Galchenyuk. I haven’t heard that rumor yet.