Where should William Nylander play when he returns to the Maple Leafs’ lineup?

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Where should William Nylander play when he returns to the Maple Leafs’ lineup?

William Nylander could be back in the lineup as soon as Game 3 on Wednesday night.

Which begs the question: Where should he play for the Toronto Maple Leafs when he returns?

Option 1: Load up

A 9-out-10 on the fun-o-metre, loading up would have Nylander join Mitch Marner and John Tavares on a star-studded second line.

Line LW C RW

1

Bertuzzi

Matthews

Domi

2

Nylander

Tavares

Marner

3

Knies

Holmberg

Järnkrok

4

Dewar

Kämpf

Reaves

Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe dabbled with this threesome here and there late in the regular season to tremendous effect, albeit in a tiny sample size of just 18.5 minutes. But in those 18.5 minutes, the Leafs dominated.

Shot attempts were 34-9 for the Leafs. Scoring chances were 19-4. The Leafs didn’t score but the flurries were there and approaching storm status.

Team the three stars up and suddenly Boston Bruins coach Jim Montgomery has a non-Auston Matthews problem to worry about as far as Games 3 and 4 are concerned, on the road with no matchup control.

That means opportunities for Keefe to pick on Boston’s third and fourth lines, and third defence pairing (which took a hit Monday night with an injury to Andrew Peeke), with Marner, Nylander, and Tavares and hope to generate more meaningful scoring opportunities beyond Matthews’ line than the Leafs were able to get in Games 1 and 2.

Matthews was the instigator of all three Leaf goals in the Game 2 win, two at five-on-five and one on the power play.

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His line is going to need more help as this series rolls along. David Kämpf scored the only Leafs goal in Game 1.

The unit that’s supposed to provide support that way has been stymied so far in this series: In about 16 minutes, the Leafs have won just 26 percent of the expected goals with the No. 2 line of Tavares, Marner, and Matthew Knies on the ice.

The line has generated just one high-danger shot attempt.

In all fairness, that group has had a difficult opponent: Going head-to-head with David Pastrnak’s unit in Games 1 and 2. And except for a late second-period goal by Pastrnak in Game 2, the matchup has effectively been a saw-off (even if the Bruins are winning the minutes).

Tavares vs. Pastrňák minutes

Leafs Bruins

Shot attempts

5

8

Shots

4

4

Scoring chances

2

4

Expected goals

0.19

0.35

If there’s a reason not to go star-heavy it’s this: Tavares, Marner, and Knies are hanging in there. And while Knies has looked a little out of his element at times, why change what’s (kinda) working?

Then again, replacing Knies with Nylander won’t take away the line’s ability to duel with Pastrnak’s unit. If anything, it should force the Bruins’ top line to play a lot more in their own zone.

It would also pair Marner up with another ace shooter in Nylander. Marner doesn’t have a point through two games, but he’s created legitimate scoring opportunities on just about every one of his handful of shifts with Matthews.

Not so much with Tavares and Knies, who have struggled to get open looks.

Marner might be able to jolt Nylander, who struggled down the stretch playing mostly alongside the offensively limited Pontus Holmberg. Nylander, on the other hand, played his best hockey this season with Tavares.

Would Marner and Nylander, who both function best with the puck on their stick, work well together? Or, is there too much overlap in their skill sets? I tend to think they’ll find a way to make it work, but it’s not exactly a tried-and-tested combo.

With Nylander in the top six, Knies could drop down into lighter third-line terrain with Holmberg and Calle Järnkrok, a trio that should, at the very least, bring the Leafs speed and energy and maybe the odd goal.

Option 2: Keep it simple (for now)

If Keefe and his staff are relucant to change much after the win in Game 2, the easiest move is to simply slide Nylander back onto the third line, where he would join Järnkrok and Holmberg on an all-Swedish line.

Nick Robertson, who played only seven minutes in Game 2 (and had a good chance to score), figures to be the odd man out when Nylander returns, regardless of where he plays.  (The fourth line of Connor Dewar, Kämpf, and Ryan Reaves has been too impactful to touch. And for what it’s worth, the underlying numbers for the Holmberg unit have been strong.)

Line LW C RW

1

Bertuzzi

Matthews

Domi

2

Knies

Tavares

Marner

3

Järnkrok

Holmberg

Nylander

4

Dewar

Kämpf

Reaves

Nylander would, in theory, give the Leafs a high-end scoring threat from the bottom six. That was the thinking behind the spread attack the team deployed late in the season – with Matthews, Marner, and Nylander all operating on separate lines.

Did it actually work though?

I’m not so sure. The concept seemed better in theory than in practice (though the sample size was small) and crucially asked Nylander to create offence without much support.

Nylander played almost 100 minutes with Holmberg during the regular season. He registered exactly one point, an assist, in those minutes. And now he’ll be playing at less than 100 percent, presumably.

It’s easy to say he should be able to drive a line himself, but why not get him real help if it’s there?

Keefe would undoubtedly pair Nylander up with Tavares and Marner here and there if Nylander were to start on a line with Holmberg, just not on a full-time basis.

If the Matthews line hadn’t played so well in Game 2, a full shakeup might have seen Marner reunite with Matthews and Nylander rejoin Tavares. But that option is probably off the table for the time being.

We have seen Keefe take big swings in past playoffs, most notably in Game 5 against the Blue Jackets when he had Tavares play left wing alongside Matthews and Marner.

At this point, coming off a win, he might decide to play it safer with Option 2.

However, Keefe and his staff might want to ask this question in their determination of where to place Nylander in the lineup: What would Boston prefer they do?

Would Montgomery rather see Nylander wheeling and dealing alongside Marner and Tavares? Or, would he prefer to deal with Nylander on a third line with less help?

The answer to that seems obvious, though clearly there are reasons to play it safe – for now.

(Photo: Michael Chisholm / NHLI via Getty Images)

–Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference