Get ready for full-strength Maple Leafs, as Nylander’s set to debut

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Even the Toronto Maple Leafs’ biggest haters should turn their frowns upside down for at least a little while, as hockey fans are rapidly approaching quite the gift.

Multiple reporters (including Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie) pass along word that William Nylander announced that he’ll play in the Maple Leafs’ next game, which takes place against the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday. To make the situation even more joyous, consider that the game is happening in Toronto.

To make things more delightful – and maybe excite a dork or two in advanceAuston Matthews hasn’t missed a beat since returning from injury. Thursday will only represent Matthews’ fourth game back in the lineup, yet he’s been making up for lost time, as the American star has five goals and two assists for seven points in three contests. (Yes, seriously.)

The Red Wings should expect to hold on for dear life, as Thursday represents the first time that we’ll get a full vision of what this Maple Leafs team can be in 2018-19: Matthews and Nylander joining John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, and other talented offensive players to form what could be one of the most explosive offenses in recent history.

[Can they keep the band together beyond this season? That’s another story.]

Zooming out a bit, it will be fascinating to see how head coach Mike Babcock pieces things together.

Via Natural Stat Trick’s numbers, Matthews and Zach Hyman were far and away Nylander’s most common even-strength linemates last season. Hyman’s instead been lining up with Tavares and Marner lately, while Patrick Marleau and Kasperi Kapanen have been Matthews’ wingers.

It’s been noted that Kapanen was dreaming about Nylander returning, but will his buddy’s reemergence bump him down the Maple Leafs’ lineup? Someone has to get moved down the order, after all … unless Babcock boldly put Nylander on the third line with another overqualified forward in Nazem Kadri.

That’s anyone’s guess, and as hockey fans know, coaches tend to throw line combinations in a blender, anyway. Injuries, cold/hot streaks, and the scoreboard can all affect how things shake out.

Even so, it’s intriguing to see how some are drawing up combos.

Jeff Veillette, for example, argues for a line of Andreas Johnsson – Matthews – Nylander (with Tavares joined by Hyman and Marner) in this post for The Faceoff Circle. It’s interesting to see Veillette discuss salary cap implications in his explanation:

This line exists to win hockey games, not chess matches. If it was a chess match, it would probably be closer to what the coaching staff is doing to win hockey games – Patrick Marleau near the top to try to pad his point totals (in case he’s willing to waive his No-Movement Clause on the final year of his contract this summer), and Johnsson near the bottom to keep his production down (so he doesn’t cash in on his “prove it” year).

Stylistically, Nylander would certainly make a lot of sense back with Matthews, at least with Marner clicking so well as Tavares’ wingman. Nylander’s a right-handed shot who can create great opportunities for Matthews, while also punishing opponents severely if they overcommit to stopping that connection. It’s pretty terrifying to imagine having to deal with a pair of one-two punches on the scale of Matthews – Nylander and Tavares – Marner, especially considering how successful Toronto’s been, even at less-than-full-strength.

The Athletic’s Jonas Siegel also postulates (sub required) that Nylander could be a big boost to the Maple Leafs’ second power-play unit.

Putting Nylander in that group makes some sense. For one thing, that top group is dominating opponents. For another, Siegel notes that Babcock still gives plenty of PP ice time to Marleau, Jake Gardiner, and the second unit. Some might lean toward the “load up on one group” mantra, but it becomes increasingly sensible when you realize that top players often are the ones drawing penalties, so giving them a breather (rather than throwing them right back on the ice, or extending shifts) makes a lot of sense.

So, whether you go big picture or really get into the nuts and bolts, Nylander’s addition is a significant boon for the Maple Leafs.

Delightfully, it should bump an already-exciting team to an absolutely must-watch level.

And, hey, you could always go back to hating the Maple Leafs again when the games start to matter a bit more. You know, if hating the Leafs is your thing.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.