Sheldon Keefe shares that William Nylander will be a centre to start camp

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
8 months ago
After years of the debate about the merits of William Nylander at centre we are finally being treated to an honest to goodness attempt at it. We’ve certainly seen Nylander at centre when situations called for it, like during injuries to either Matthews or Tavares, but Nylander hasn’t had the chance to go into a camp with that role in mind until now.
During Sheldon Keefe’s media availability Keefe confirmed what Elliotte Friedman had recently been speculating on and that is the Leafs will try to go with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, and David Kampf down the middle. I’m sure there will be significant debate over whether the Tavares or the Nylander line is the second line, but initially it looks like a good problem to have.
So that brings us to is it a good idea to try this with Nylander. By Keefe’s account Nylander is ready and willing to give it a go and seems to prefer the idea of having an opportunity to work on it in camp instead of being launched into it during the season. The conspiracy theorist part of my brain wonders if the Leafs are conveniently putting Nylander in a position that he might produce less heading into his next contract, but it is also worth considering that if Nylander is anywhere near being a 70-point player as a centre he could also see his price tag go up. So perhaps we’ll skip the conspiracy angle for now and focus on what could work for Nylander.
Last season, William Nylander had a relatively small sample of time on the ice without Tavares, Matthews, Kampf, or O’Reilly being out there with him. He played 149 minutes. That often included playing with other centre options like Pontus Holmberg, Alex Kerfoot, Calle Jarnkrok, or Pierre Engvall, but in all of those situations it was a bit of centre by committee and unquestionably Nylander was the player who was driving the line in those situations. That isn’t a lot of time to draw a conclusion from but we’ll look at what happened anyway:
Nylander’s numbers
The main takeaway from this small sample is that Nylander’s offence didn’t suffer. The line was still getting pushing offensively, but defensively there was certainly an increased volume of chances that I’m sure Toronto would like to curb despite the still generally favourable outcomes. It comes as a shock to no one that defence is going to be the biggest issue with Nylander in this role, as it would be if the Leafs were attempted this with Max Domi as well, but given that Nylander is a stronger skater, far superior puck carrier, and has an established relationship with Sheldon Keefe, the decision to go with Nylander as the centre test subject makes a lot of sense.
The Leafs will certainly be looking to mitigate some risk with potential linemates like Calle Jarnkrok or Matthew Knies. I wonder if players like Pontus Holmberg or Sam Lafferty might also get potential looks on Nylander’s wing in camp to see if they help balance Nylander’s defensive zone play becoming the slot forward option in the defensive zone before transitioning to a more traditional wing role up ice.
While this Nylander at centre experiment is an interesting one, it is worth noting that we’ve seen plenty of Alex Kerfoot at centre and Calle Jarnkrok at centre experiments as well over the Keefe era. It’s one thing to put a player with some aptitude for centre in the position but it’s another completely for it to work out and for it to work outside of the preseason. The Leafs haven’t tried this with a player of Nylander’s skill before, and that is where this offers some hope. The Leafs do still have decent options to explore in Max Domi as well as just going with Kampf as the 3C instead of 4C, but it’s training camp. We could also still see Domi with some centre reps or Kampf as the 3C anyway, as Sheldon Keefe also alluded to the possibility of seeing John Tavares on the wing more this season despite the intention that he starts the season at centre.
Keefe has had a whole summer to think about where to improve the Leafs and he unquestionably came out of the playoffs with an appreciation for having an option like Ryan O’Reilly at centre and liking the idea of pushing offence further down in to the Leafs lineup. Those don’t seem like bad conclusions to draw. It’s just now a matter of hoping the execution matches the plan.

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