In 2016-17, a group of Toronto Maple Leafs rookies served notice to the rest of the NHL that skill is in. In 2017-18, it’s all about speed.
Last season Leafs rookies Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner took the NHL by storm and transformed the Leafs from a Draft Lottery favourite to a dynamic, skilled offensive team. This season a pair of rookies in Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen have added blazing speed to the list of the team’s offensive weapons. The pair have flanked veteran Tomas Plekanec on the Leafs’ fourth line lately, giving Leafs head coach Mike Babcock four viable scoring lines amongst his forward group. That might all be about to change, however.
For better or worse, veteran Leo Komarov is nearing a return to the lineup following a lower body injury suffered in a game against the Buffalo Sabres earlier this month that has kept him out of the Leafs’ lineup for the past six games. Once he’s deemed healthy, Babcock made it clear that he’ll be back in the lineup, no question about it. “I can tell you Leo is going in for sure, we need a heavy body and a penalty killer,” said the Leafs’ bench boss before adding, “he’s a man”. Indeed he is, Babs.
So, with Komarov coming back, the Leafs starting lineup becomes a numbers game once again and it looks like Johnsson will pay the price with his roster spot. When asked how he’ll find minutes for Johnsson once Komarov returns, Babcock was blunt with his answer saying, “Maybe I don’t… that’s just the way it is, but I think Johnny has been real good.”
Despite seemingly having no room for Johnsson, Babcock has been quick to praise the Swedish youngster, who has one goal in six games since being called up on March 13th. What impresses Babcock the most is Johnsson’s straight ahead speed. “I always knew he was quick when I watched him with the Marlies,” said Babcock. “I didn’t know if he had speed. He does.”
Babcock also seems to like his line fourth line and is reluctant to pull them apart, despite having Komarov as an option, “I thought they were really good,” said Babcock about the Johnsson/Plekanec/Kapanen trio following the team’s 3-2 loss to the Sabres. “I thought two games in a row they dominated and played well, played hard and were effective. That’s a good sign for us moving ahead.”
But, again it’s a numbers game. When Komarov finally gets medical clearance expect Johnsson to watch from the press box. For how long though, remains to be seen. As the team’s 13th forward, all you can do is watch, learn and wait for your opportunity. In Johnsson’s case, the kid is taking advantage of any chance that comes his way.
Leafs already have Bozak’s replacement in place?
It’s no secret that the Toronto Maple Leafs will look a lot different next season. Veteran players like James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and Tomas Plekanec are all slated to hit the open market as free-agents and with high priced extensions coming up for youngsters like William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews something’s got to give.
While the Leafs may be able to squeeze together enough change to retain one of their impending free-agents, most likely van Riemsdyk, it’s inevitable that they will lose some veteran talent. Arguably the most important player set to depart this offseason is Bozak. As the Leafs’ third line center behind Matthews and Nazem Kadri, Bozak has quietly put together a productive season. While it’s nothing close to the 18 goals and 55 points he put up in 78 games last season, Bozak’s 11 goals and 38 points in 72 games this season are nothing to sneeze at. If and when Bozak leaves the Leafs, who’s going to step into the role as the Leafs’ 3rd line centre? Dominic Moore is unlikely to return, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock doesn’t have much faith in former first round pick Frederik Gauthier and the free-agent crop looks remarkably thin… could the Leafs be forced to look for their next 3rd line centre from within?
In his latest article for The Athletic, Leafs analyst Jonas Siegel proposes a perfect solution to this potential problem: William Nylander. Siegel argues that Nylander has earned a shot at playing down the middle of the ice, but will the Leafs give it to him? Or will they continue to keep him on the wing as Matthews’ sidekick?
“Centre, wing, it doesn't matter — wherever Babs wants me to play,” Nylander said when asked about replacing Bozak down the line.
“You have more options,” Nylander explained of the difference he feels at centre. “In the middle I can go right or left versus when I'm playing right wing going into the middle is kinda hard — I mean, guys are back-checking and stuff so usually you can only use the outside.”
So, what does Nylander have to do to get a shot at centre? Babcock has made it clear what he expects out of his centremen saying, “Each and every night there's a test for you. It's never a skill-set [issue for Nylander], it's your determination to play without the puck, it's your puck pressure in D-zone, it's your ability to sort things out. And some nights the matchups are easier than others.”
It remains to be seen what the Leafs do in the offseason to replace Bozak, and to be fair Nylander is only one option. Still, he’s an intriguing option and may end up best the team’s best option. If nothing else, the kid is raring to go.
“Yeah, I enjoy playing centre,” said a smiling Nylander.