For Leafs, everything improves with Nylander in the lineup
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 secondbest 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 pocket- sized 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 l ong. 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 80sera Oilers or even the Bruce Broudeau- coached Capitals. The Leafs know how to play defence. Since that wild back- and- forth 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).”