For Leafs, ev­ery­thing im­proves with Ny­lan­der in the lineup

North Bay Nugget - - CLASSIFIEDS - [email protected]­ twit­ Michael Traikos

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, Fl ye rs, kings or is­lan­der she 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 dubash as 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 goa lie 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 broudeau-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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