CHICAGO, IL – JANUARY 24: Toronto Maple Leafs center William Nylander (29) celebrates with teammates after scoring the winning goal from a penalty shot in overtime during a game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 24, 2018, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs whole and complete roster saw the ice for the first time this season Thursday night against the Detroit Red Wings. For the most part. Frederik Andersen rode the pine as backup while Garret Sparks got the start. And William Nylander isn’t all the way back yet. But he will be soon.

Toronto Maple Leafs Whole For The First Time This Season

William Nylander

There’s been a lot of talk about Nylander this season. What to expect from him for the rest of the season. What his signing means for the Maple Leafs next year as they try to re-sign Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. And of course, his hair has taken it up a notch.

But the biggest value Nylander brings to the Maple Leafs is the exponential value he adds to the team’s depth. The Maple Leafs have stacked their forward group this year, hoping that it will be enough for a deep run in the playoffs. The only way that works is if they have everyone playing and three, if not four, dangerous lines that can overpower any team’s defence and goaltending on any given night.

Needs Some Time

Nylander needs some time to get back into the swing of things though. That was clear on Thursday night. He played only 12 minutes against the Detroit Red Wings. The Maple Leafs’ depth kept them in the game they were down 4-1 by the second intermission. They even managed to squeeze a point out of the affair. Kasperi Kapanen scored early, his 11th of the season. That’s a lot of goals for a player that could find himself playing on the third line for the rest of the season. Kapanen also picked up an assist on Andreas Johnsson‘s game-tying goal in the third. That was his sixth of the season and they both finished with two points on the night.

Kapanen scored on a line with Nazem Kadri, but with Nylander still shaking off some rust, Mike Babcock moved both him and Johnsson up to the top line. Nylander and Patrick Marleau moved to Kadri’s line. Babcock has a lot of options with this forward group. He can swap combos to give lines that are struggling a spark. That seemed to work on Thursday night as the Maple Leafs scored three unanswered goals in the third.

At some point, and probably soon, Nylander will be back to being himself. That will force two of Kapanen, Marleau, or Johnsson to the third line with Kadri, who is coming off back to back 30 goal seasons himself.

Match-up Nightmare

Throughout the off-season and the pre-season, the talk was about matchup troubles Babcock would assail opposing coaches with. Who would teams put their shutdown centres against? John Tavares and Marner, or Matthews and Nylander. Without Nylander, and with Matthews out for 14 games, that decision was easy. Now that Nylander is back, that matchup nightmare becomes real.

If the Maple Leafs do run into a team that has two lines to throw at the Tavares and Matthews lines, they still have the Kadri line to contend with. And if that line has a confident Kapanen and or Johnsson on it, it could be amongst the NHL’s top lines in terms of five-on-five scoring.

The Powerplay

The Maple Leafs are sixth in the league in powerplay percentage at 26.7. They are also last in the league in power-play opportunities at 75. The Florida Panthers lead the league with 108. Nylander adds skill and speed to the roster. That combination should lead to more power-play opportunities, although teams are wising up to the fact that giving the Maple Leafs power plays is detrimental to winning against them.

The top power-play unit will probably stay as it is with Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Kadri, and Morgan Rielly. The second unit has not prevailed well this season with players such as Tyler Ennis, Josh Leivo, Johnsson, Kapanen, Marleau, and Jake Gardiner. Leivo accounted for half that unit’s goals before he was traded to the Vancouver Canucks.

With Nylander, who will likely be the keystone for that group, the second unit becomes much more dangerous.

The Big Bad Bruins

Tonight’s game against the Boston Bruins will bring the team one step closer to their full roster with Andersen set to get the start. Nylander will be a little closer to his usual self by the end of tonight’s game, although it will surely take a few more games for him to shake off the side effects of missing training camp and 28 games.

The Bruins are not a full roster themselves with Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron out of action, making this game a great one for the Maple Leafs to flex their offensive muscle.

Nylander Trade Scenarios

Another topic that won’t seem to die are the rumours of Nylanders pending trade. Elliot Friedman doesn’t think Nylander will be with Toronto next season.

“The one thing I do believe, no matter what happens, is that this will be William Nylander’s final season as a Toronto Maple Leaf.” Friedman said prior to the signing.

But after the signing Nylander came out and said Kyle Dubas told him he wouldn’t be traded.

Which in turn was seen by some as Dubas making claims he can’t guarantee. And that if Dubas was forced to trade Nylander after telling him he wouldn’t, it would destroy all confidence other players might have in him. But hockey is a business first. And in business, things change fast and promises can be broken with little fanfare. Unless you’re in Ottawa.

Clearly, Dubas has no intention of trading Nylander to improve the team’s defence, which has been expected by many. He has no intention of trading him period. The Maple Leafs are all in with their forwards being their strength for years to come. Although as the cap grows, Toronto will have options after the 2019-2020 season, depending on how the next CBA shakes out. There may be opportunities to add significant defensive pieces long before Nylander hits unrestricted free agency.

If at some point over the next few years, perhaps the year before Nylander reaches UFA status, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Dubas to consider trading Nylander. And telling Nylander that his intention to keep him does not handcuff Dubas in the future. It’s his intention now to keep him the full length of the contract, and maybe beyond. Its okay to tell the player that. And if someone were to throw Dubas an offer he can’t refuse later this season, well, again, it’s a business. And everyone gets that.

Your Toronto Maple Leafs

This is the team you’ll see in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. A team that’s heavy on forwards, able to score in bunches, and gives up a lot of shots. Although hopefully, they clear up the team defence a bit by April.

They can win with that type of roster. It will have challenges. Like dealing with teams that play heavy against them, which is a common playoff theme regardless of the teams involved. And the Maple Leafs may need to find a way to protect their superstars aside from scoring goals on power plays. Especially come playoff time when the refs suddenly find themselves out of breath when considering whether to blow a whistle or not. But this Maple Leafs’ roster is a Stanley Cup contender. And that’s thanks to their tremendous depth.

CHICAGO, IL – JANUARY 24: Toronto Maple Leafs center William Nylander (29) celebrates with teammates after scoring the winning goal from a penalty shot in overtime during a game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 24, 2018, at the United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


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