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Backfilling John Tavares

John Tavares is hurt and that is something we were promised couldn’t happen. At least not in a non-Olympic year. While there’s never a good time for an injury to a star player, the fact that the injury comes during a miserable 4-3-1 start to the year, where the Leafs are still yet to beat a team capable of getting within a sniff of the playoffs makes the timing especially bad.

Looking at the Leafs center situation really doesn’t help matters. You’ve got Auston Matthews who is the bright spot in this story, followed by reformed winger Alex Kerfoot, who we can now safely call a center, and Freddie Gauthier, who really should not be considered as someone who can move up beyond a fourth line role, unless the Leafs are going to drastically shift towards a shutdown line situation for their third line, and frankly the thought of that is causing bleeding in my brain.

Currently on the roster there are center options in the form of Jason Spezza, Nick Shore, Nic Petan, and of course, William Nylander, who you may remember from his stint as a center last year which caused half of Leafs fans to lose their shit and call for his head for not being able to produce at a point per game pace on the 3rd line with Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown.

Beyond the Leafs there are the Marlies options. The options aren’t good but we’ll list them anyway because people like to believe a Marlie can save the day. Pierre Engvall is probably the most appealing option and Kalle Kossila is a complete mystery box, but there is also career AHL fodder in Adam Brooks, Tyler Gaudet, and Garret Wilson to consider. Do any of these names inspire you any more than Nic Petan? No. Back to the Leafs options…

The Case for Jason Spezza

This is a somewhat hollow case, in that it seems that Mike Babcock in no way wants to use Jason Spezza as a fourth line winger and bringing him in as a third line center seems somewhat unlikely. Much more than that, now that we’ve seen a bit more of Jason Spezza in his current state, do you find yourself warming up to the idea that Mike Babcock isn’t completely wrong about him?

He could look better with improved talent flanking him, but that can probably be said of most of these guys.

My Spezza lines:
Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander
Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Marner
Moore-Spezza-Kapanen
Timashov-Gauthier-Shore

These lines would have the least amount of change, and Trevor Moore seems to be capable of elevating everyone this year, but we’ll look at the other options.

The Case for Nic Petan

In the interest in speeding this up, you can assume a lot of what was said about Spezza can also be said about Petan. Mike Babcock doesn’t seem like a fan, but in this case I’d disagree that Babcock is right to not be a fan. Petan might still have some potential we haven’t seen, although I don’t think it will come as a centerman.

Given that I don’t want to do elaborate breakdowns of lines for each of the players, I’m merging a couple of ideas here.

  1. Petan should play in as a fourth line winger
  2. Nick Shore should assume the fourth line center duty
  3. Hehe, I just said duty
  4. Gauthier could play on the third line in more of a shutdown line capacity.

My train wreck lines:
Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander
Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Marner
Timashov-Gauthier-Moore
Petan-Shore-Kapanen

BOOM! I bet you didn’t see that Kapanen on the fourth line thing coming and you immediately hate me for it. That’s fair, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that trying to balance the third and fourth lines might be the best course of action and Kapanen legitimatizes that line and arguably we’ll hate both of those lines just as much.

That brings us back to Nylander

Literally no one wants to see Nylander at center, probably most of all William Nylander, but he might in fact be the best option for maintaining three solid lines that do not bring shame on the city of Toronto. It allows for strong pairs to exist between Matthews-Marner, Mikheyev-Kerfoot, and Nylander-Johnsson, while all three carry a passenger, and in Nylander’s case, he gets Kapanen, because he probably needs the biggest boost for it to work…

The Nylander approach:
Moore-Matthews-Marner
Johnsson-Nylander-Kapanen
Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Petan
Timashov-Gauthier-Shore

There. You still don’t feel good about it, but you don’t feel like you’ve wronged Matthews or Kerfoot in the process. You might be asking yourself why not go with Marner on Nylander’s wing, but to that I say “who will finish the play?” Also, Matthews has thrived with a competent playmaker at his side and do we truly want to take that away from him?

As for what the Nylander line would look like here’s what we have to go off of with Johnsson, Nylander, and Kapanen playing together since 2017-18…

Kasperi Kapanen William Nylander Andreas Johnsson TOI CF CA CF% GF% xGF% HDCF%
Y Y Y 3.50 1 1 50 0
Y Y N 58.63 71 60 54.2 28.57 57.06 63.16
Y N Y 292.75 343 270 55.95 53.57 51.22 58.04
N Y Y 362.00 491 339 59.16 55 59.44 59.29

via naturalstattrick.com

Your thoughts on WOWYs, and smallness of the sample sizes aside, generally all three of them have played well when paired with one of the others. Probably not surprisingly since they are primarily wingers, they haven’t really had a chance to play together before, but this looks like it has some promise and is the most encouraging option I can think of.

Conclusion

There is nothing good about John Tavares being injured, and the fact that if it’s only two weeks is probably the best case scenario. The Leafs have six games over that stretch, four of which come at home and Mike Babcock can rely on his line matching to avoid putting a less capable center in a bad situation. Unfortunately, two of the games are against the Bruins and that Capitals game on the 29th will be a tough one too. If Tavares is gone the full four weeks, it’s a 12 game departure with 3 more home games, but with significantly more manageable opponents which is nice. And with Hyman likely return before Tavares some additional help should be on the way, but for now, I think it’s best that the reigns of the center position get reluctantly handed over to William Nylander.