According to Mike Babcock, the plan is still for William Nylander to be a center.
“I see Willie as a center for sure,” the Maple Leafs’ head coach said this morning, per the Toronto Sun.
But if that’s the case, the big question in Toronto remains — When?
Tonight in St. Louis, Nylander is expected to be on the wing, the position he’s played the most as an NHLer.
That’s no major indictment, as Nylander is still only 20. There’s a lot of responsibilities that go with playing center, especially defensively.
Besides, the Leafs already have two established NHL centers in Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak, plus a rookie center by the name of Auston Matthews. If Babcock wants Nylander in the top nine, then wing is the only real option when Matthews, Kadri, and Bozak are all healthy.
Still, Babcock did say back in December that Nylander has to get “way better defensively, way more competitive” if he wants to play the middle, and it remains to be seen if the eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft will ever develop the type of two-way game that the coach demands of his centers.
If not, the Leafs will still be in pretty good shape down the middle, with Matthews and Kadri under club control for years to come. But GM Lou Lamoriello may have to think twice about trading a guy like Bozak, who’s only signed through next season before he can become an unrestricted free agent.
Or, if Bozak isn’t part of the future, Lamoriello may have to come up with a new third-line center, either via trade or free agency. While it’s true that Frederik Gauthier is still only 21, the former first-round draft pick has not yet proven he’s an NHLer, let alone a future 3C.
Nylander himself has been the subject of trade speculation this season. After all, Toronto’s blue line could use another top-4 defenseman, and James van Riemsdyk may not possess the value to garner one.
But it would have to be an excellent defenseman for the Leafs to trade a guy as young and skilled as Nylander. Even if he’s never a center, he’s already a pretty productive winger, and that’s not nothing.