STOCKHOLM — William Nylander’s family stood in the crowd at Avicii Arena filming on their phones as he was honoured with player-of-the-game honours (which included a Rolex) at home in Sweden on Friday night.
It was another rockstar performance from the Leafs’ best player this season: A goal and two assists that drove a third-period comeback against the Red Wings. That and nine shot attempts in 20.5 minutes.
“I think it’s pretty evident what he’s done over the last 15 or 16 so months here, put himself, I think, in the conversation with the best players in the game,” his linemate, John Tavares, said afterward. “He continues to show on a nightly basis how dominant he is, and the game breaker that he can be.”
Nylander is up to fourth in league scoring with 25 points and tied for fifth with 11 goals. His point streak to start the season has reached 16 games, one-off Connor McDavid’s top mark for an active player.
Thanks mostly to Nylander, the Leafs’ second line is rolling over opponents right now. In the last four games, the Leafs have outscored teams 5-0 with Nylander, Tavares, and Tyler Bertuzzi on the ice and outchanced them by a silly 40-7 (!) margin.
Meanwhile, the Leafs’ No. 1 line continues to not quite struggle, but not dominate the game in the form of previous seasons. Monster performance against Tampa on Nov. 6 aside, it’s been especially quiet of late. Ordinary even.
Over that same four-game stretch, which followed that huge night versus the Lightning, the Leafs have been outscored 2-0 with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Matthew Knies on the ice, while winning just under 49 percent of the expected goals.
Which begs the question: Should the Leafs spark the Matthews-led first unit with Nylander? Or maybe the more appropriate question is when should they spark the unit with Nylander?
Not today, of course. Nylander and the line he’s leading are rocking so hard right that it would be foolish to touch anything there at the moment. Bertuzzi, notably, is looking as comfortable as ever. And yet, the move also doesn’t feel far off if things continue as is for that first unit and slow down even a little for that No. 2 (playing like a No. 1 at the moment) group.
It was right around this time last season — Nov. 12 to be precise — that head coach Sheldon Keefe flipped Nylander onto Matthews’ right wing in place of Marner during a similarly so-so start for the top line.
The line took off — and Nylander ended up spending almost as much time with Matthews throughout the season.
Keefe hasn’t given it a go so far this season, aside from stuffing Nylander with Matthews and Marner when the Leafs are in need of a spark.
The Leafs coach has tried every conceivable left winger otherwise with Matthews and Marner: Bertuzzi, Calle Järnkrok, and now, Knies. Though there was “instant chemistry” with Knies in that spot, things have cooled since.
“I don’t think they’ve played to that level,” Keefe said. “They set a high standard with how they played there.”
Nobody has stuck in that spot like Michael Bunting did for most of the two previous seasons.
It’s obviously on Matthews and Marner to power the line, and while there have been flourishes, including a near goal that was taken away in Stockholm, there’s been no sustained push of dominance.
That seems at least partly tied to the Leafs’ issues on the backend and a more onerous defensive workload for the line this season. (The presence of a fourth line that can finally take some defensive-zone draws is easing that burden of late.)
Matthews and Marner have just been a little out of sync to this point too, not quite throwing alley-oops like usual.
The production is still there for both at five-on-five: Matthews has mustered 2.8 points per 60 minutes, about in line with last season (2.7); Marner has managed 2.9 points per 60, up slightly (2.8) from last year.
It’s undeniable though that their line hasn’t been the all-consuming force that it’s been in the past, that the Leafs need it to be eventually.
In just about every category, the Leafs are basically even, or only slightly above even, with Matthews and Marner on the ice.
If that persists a little while longer it almost feels inevitable that Keefe moves Nylander up. Nylander’s level right now is so high that pairing him up with Matthews, who has all of his five-on-five goals this season in just four games, makes a lot of sense. It might unlock even more from Matthews.
“I’m sure Willy coming in, he wanted to have a night like that,” Keefe said of his latest star showing, which started with a dominant with a capital D shift setting up the Leafs’ first goal of the evening. “Willy’s had a lot of nights like that so far here this season.”
Would Marner and Tavares find a spark in the event that Nylander moves up with Matthews? And who, if anyone, will nail down that spot at first-line left wing? Is it a spot that GM Brad Treliving will have to look at upgrading, if that’s even possible?
Surely, Keefe has the Nylander ace up his sleeve just waiting to be used if, or perhaps when, necessary. He hasn’t played yet. But maybe, soon enough, he’ll have to.
— Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
(Top photo: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)