For Leafs, ev­ery­thing im­proves with Ny­lan­der in the lineup

Kingston Whig-Standard - - SPORTS - MICHAEL TRAIKOS [email protected]­ twit­

TORONTO — Aus­ton Matthews was talk­ing about the bot­tom­less depth of the Maple Leafs and how the re­turn of Wil­liam Ny­lan­der had pushed Kasperi Ka­pa­nen down in the line-up. But how it re­ally wasn’t a de­mo­tion for Ka­pa­nen, be­cause it meant that he would be play­ing on the third line with Nazem Kadri, who’s 30-goal scorer, and...

It was then that Matthews paused.

“I don’t know who’s on the left side,” he said. “But any­where you go in this line-up you’re go­ing to be play­ing with some pretty good play­ers. I think that goes with­out be­ing said.”

In­deed, whether it was Con­nor Brown or An­dreas Johns­son on the left side, Matthews’ point was well made. The Leafs are in­cred­i­bly stacked. Heck, they were stacked even with­out Ny­lan­der — or Matthews for that mat­ter.

Head­ing into Thurs­day night’s game against the Detroit Red Wings, Toronto had won five straight and owned the sec­ond-best record in the NHL. Mitch Marner is ranked in the top-5 in scor­ing, while John Tavares is amongst the top-20 and de­fence­man Mor­gan Rielly is tied for 22nd.

Matthews, who en­tered Thurs­day night’s game against the Red Wings with 15 goals in 14 games, would be right up there had he not missed half the sched­ule so far with a shoul­der in­jury. The same goes for Ny­lan­der who, after sit­ting out for 28 games be­cause of a con­tract dis­pute, signed a six-year deal last week that car­ries a $6.9-mil­lion cap hit.

That’s David Pas­tr­nak-type of money. And the ex­pec­ta­tion is that he will start pro­duc­ing like the Bos­ton sniper — once the rust of sit­ting out in Swe­den for the past two months wears off.

“He is a big part of this team,” said Matthews. “He is dy­namic. You add an­other player like that to our ros­ter and our depth, it gives us an­other weapon out there and it’s def­i­nitely a good thing for us.”

Not that the Leafs needed any more weapons.

With­out Ny­lan­der — and at times with­out Matthews — Toronto ranked sec­ond in goals per game and has the third-best power play. Adding Ny­lan­der to a lineup that has four play­ers pro­duc­ing at a 90-point pace was sort of like Rambo car­ry­ing around a rocket launcher, a cou­ple of AK-47s, and a belt lined with grenades — while also tuck­ing a pock­et­sized pis­tol into his boot for good mea­sure.

Con­sider that Ka­pa­nen, who was dropped down to the third line on Thurs­day, had scored 10 goals in the first 28 games of the sea­son. Had he been play­ing for the Coy­otes, Ducks, Fly­ers, Kings or Is­lan­ders he would be lead­ing each of those teams in goals.

Also con­sider that in or­der to make room for Ny­lan­der, the Leafs traded fourth-line for­ward Josh Leivo to the Van­cou­ver Canucks, where he promptly was el­e­vated to the top line and scored a goal in his first game.

That’s the def­i­ni­tion of depth. It’s also why the hype around the Leafs is very much real.

Two months into the sea­son, the only team bet­ter than Toronto was Tampa Bay. But now that the Leafs’ ros­ter is com­plete, ex­pect that to change — es­pe­cially since GM Kyle Dubas has about $5.8-mil­lion to spend on what­ever else the team might need at the trade dead­line.

In other words, we haven’t seen the best just yet. Not even close.

Ny­lan­der is an up­grade over Ka­pa­nen, so he will make Matthews bet­ter. And he will im­prove the al­ready deadly power play. Ev­ery­thing im­proves.

“I think (Ny­lan­der’s re­turn) has given ev­ery­body a lift,” said Matthews. “I think ev­ery­body is ex­cited just to put the whole thing in the past and move on. He is here and he is here for good.”

At the same time, it might have been a bless­ing in dis­guise to go with­out Ny­lan­der for this long. It not only al­lowed Ka­pa­nen to step up and show he can pro­duce and forced goalie Fred­erik An­der­sen to be sharp right out of the gate, but also taught the Leafs how to win in other ways.

This team is not the 80s-era Oil­ers or even the Bruce Brou de au-coached Cap­i­tals. The Leafs know how to play de­fence. Since that wild back-and­forth 7-6 over­time win against the Black­hawks in the third game of the sea­son, Toronto has al­lowed four or more goals only five times.

“Cer­tainly, when we get our op­por­tu­ni­ties we know we can be pretty lethal,” said Tavares. “But I think the fo­cus isn’t on how lethal can we be, it’s on con­tin­u­ing the work ethic and that at­ti­tude of try­ing to be hard to play against.”

When asked if adding Ny­lan­der to a team that had al­ready been fir­ing on all cylin­ders sends a mes­sage to the rest of the league, Tavares shook his head.

“I don’t think we try to worry about send­ing mes­sages,” he said. “But cer­tainly out of the cor­ner of your eye, you see the stand­ings and you see the high­lights ev­ery day. You know what a team like Tampa has done over the last five years and how con­sis­tent they’ve been. It’s a very pol­ished group, deep as well, and they’re just go­ing about their busi­ness very well right now.

“There’s a long way to go. It’s just about con­tin­u­ing to kind of give your­self the best chance to have suc­cess. So ob­vi­ously, the idea is to win the divi­sion and get home ice. All of that’s the key in terms of mak­ing the play­offs and set­ting your­self up to have the best op­por­tu­nity (to win).”


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