With a nice 17-8-0 record, it’s not as if the Toronto Maple Leafs are failing to deliver on the hype so far this season.
Even so, we haven’t really gotten a taste of what kind of juggernaut this team can truly be, but that could all change if the Maple Leafs finally resolve one lingering problem and see a superstar shake off lingering injuries.
Yes, it’s looking like an exciting week for the Maple Leafs. Here’s why just about any hockey fan should share that excitement, or at least a healthy dose of fascination.
Matthews makes a comeback
To start, it sounds like Toronto will get that aforementioned superstar back from injury on Wednesday, as Auston Matthews is slated to get back in the lineup as the Buds face the San Jose Sharks. Matthews last suited up on Oct. 27, yet his numbers still look pretty splendid, as he generated 10 goals and six assists for 16 points in just 11 games, and that last contest was abbreviated by his latest, unfortunate injury.
The Maple Leafs were 8-3-0 after winning that Oct. 27 game against Winnipeg. With John Tavares and Frederik Andersen putting together excellent work in Matthews’ absence, Toronto produced a solid 9-5-0 mark without the American center, thus leaving them at 17-8-0.
It’s not yet clear who Matthews will line up with tonight, although TSN’s Mark Masters notes that Matthews raved about his stretch playing alongside Patrick Marleau and Kasperi Kapanen, explaining that “we all bring different things to the table, but I think all of us want to play fast.”
Looking at Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength listings, Matthews has clearly stuck with those two the most; amusingly, he’s been on the ice more often with Marleau (143:52) than his goalie Andersen (126:19).
Matthews said that it might take him time to get back up to speed, but then again …
We won’t have to wait much longer to find out what happens with William Nylander, whose contract-less situation has dragged on far longer than just about anyone expected.
While there’s the outside chance that things could be pushed to a February deadline noted by The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun (sub required), it’s tough to imagine Nylander’s holdout costing him the 2018-19 season outright. About a week ago, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported that the two sides might hash out something along the lines of a six-year deal worth about $6.9 million per season, although there’s an indication that the sides are about $300K apart.
One way (a contract signing) or the other (trading Nylander’s rights to another team), it sure seems like we’ll get some closure by the Saturday (Dec. 1) deadline of 5 p.m. ET.
Let’s set contract rumblings – along with memories of Ryan Smyth crying in an airport because of a relatively small discrepancy – and ponder what the Maple Leafs would be getting if the two sides could hammer out an agreement.
Nylander, 22, has played two full seasons in the NHL, plus a 22-game run in 2015-16. He’s generated 20+ goals twice, and 61 points in each instance, giving him an impressive 135 points in 185 games. But how good is he, really?
If you spend any time on Hockey Twitter, you’ve probably seen people arguing about Nylander, whether the discussion turns to accusations of greed, being “carried” by Matthews, or – on the opposite end – bold proclamations regarding his greatness.
The deeper you dig, the better Nylander tends to look. The Athletic’s Ian Tulloch ($) noted back in October that Nylander’s per-minute numbers stack up really well against other notable players, including teammate Mitch Marner. Their work from 2017-18 seems quite comparable based on the wide array of metrics covered by Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool, among others:
Long bar graphs/story short, it can sometimes feel a little vague to deem Nylander a “top-six forward,” so maybe it would be best to describe as someone who could fit into plenty of top lines around the league, and prosper along the way?
Combining Matthews, Marner, and Nylander with Tavares won’t be cheap, something the Maple Leafs are making quite clear. It will likely be worth the headaches, though, because that’s a scary group.
There also might be a silver lining to this long, drawn-out process, beyond Toronto potentially making the money work.
Gains for the supporting cast
With Matthews and especially Nylander out, other players have been asked to step up.
The most tantalizing development probably comes in the strong year for Kasperi Kapanen. Would he have received so many opportunities with high-end linemates if Nylander was around since Game 1? Judging by past seasons, the answer sure feels like “No.”
Kapanen’s really run with the opportunity, displaying speed and skill while collecting 17 points in 25 games. His 18.9 shooting percentage indicates that he might slow down a bit, yet Kapanen’s likely earned serious trust with Mike Babcock and others.
The Nylanders and Matthews of the league drive your success, yet sometimes it’s the growth of a player who could thrive or decline (possibly Kapanen, definitely someone like Brayden Point or Jake Guentzel) who can really make the difference in finding something special.
No doubt about it, the Leafs aren’t out of the woods. They still need to settle Nylander’s situation, and more strained contract talks await with Matthews and Marner.
Like just about any team in the salary cap era, they also must play well enough to make up for certain flaws. Putting a talented group on the ice doesn’t guarantee a deep run, and expectations are likely to be extremely high in Toronto if the Maple Leafs do get Matthews healthy and Nylander signed.
Success would be awfully sweet if that does happen, as the Maple Leafs could conceivably be the most dazzling team we’ve seen in some time. After all, good things come to those who wait, right?