What's the Leafs' best third line now that it runs through William Nylander?

·4 min read

Tuesday night's rather tedious win over the Philadelphia Flyers was another example of Sheldon Keefe's refusal to sit on his hands. The Toronto Maple Leafs head coach went back to the Vitamix with star centre Auston Matthews remaining out with a minor injury, mixing, matching and blending forwards to his heart's content in an otherwise irrelevant late-season game.

There is some method to the madness, of course; it's possible that a tandem or combination emerges from what hit the wall in the pregame strategy session. You can never know too much about your team, much less ever be sure with injuries. But above anything else it seems the benefit is just to keep his team on its toes, rather than see it slip into an area of complacency.

That is one of the many benefits of locking up strong postseason positioning so early.

The task now is to try to decipher what's real, or what the coaching staff might see actual potential in, and what's simply a means to an end. Is there a world where Colin Blackwell serves a top-six function on this Maple Leafs team? Probably not. Could David Kampf be relegated to fourth-line duties after such a brilliant and essential season anchoring Toronto's checking third line? Yeah, that's something that seems possible now.

But what might be most interesting — or most real — is what remained the same for Keefe throughout the last few weeks, which is the separation of John Tavares and William Nylander, and more specifically the idea that Nylander can take a unit with strict defensive responsibility to the next level.

Chemistry, or even a lack thereof, can grow to be undeniable. What we have seen over the last month — and more specifically the strategy from the coaching staff — has appeared to be an acceptance of that.

The Maple Leafs are better when William Nylander and John Tavares are driving their own lines. (Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Maple Leafs are better when William Nylander and John Tavares are driving their own lines. (Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images)

At its core, the main point of contention when dropping Nylander from Tavares' wing was the idea that Nylander's ice time, and therefore overall impact, would be diminished.

Weeks into the experiment now, if seconds have been shaved off his total usage, it's been negligible at best. But more importantly, his most productive month of the season on average would prove that Nylander's presence hasn't been diminished.

It might not even be a discussion anymore as to if Nylander is best served on the third line. Instead, it's who should compliment him on the line that he's anchoring, and while keeping in mind that the unit still serves a very specific defensive function.

Pairing him with two of the most reliable defensive players on the team in Kampf and Pierre Engvall is a combination that has worked incredibly well in recent weeks. Nylander's flourishing chemistry with Engvall, in particular, is becoming one of the more dynamic tandems within the team's forward structure.

But to further experiment, Keefe has thrown the other player Nylander has shown undeniable chemistry with into the mix.

It's been Alexander Kerfoot — not Kampf — who has centred the Nylander-Engvall pairing over the last two games. It's a combination that harkens back to last season's short-lived postseason run, when Nylander and Kerfoot were arguably Toronto's best two forwards playing together on a second line when Tavares was forced to exit the series.

Nothing from the last two games would scream that Nylander's chemistry with each of his new linemates would create something even stronger and more powerful if merged. In fact, the Leafs have been pretty clearly outplayed in the highly-limited 20-minute sample of Nylander sharing a unit with Kerfoot and Engvall. It's entirely possible that Kampf's presence through the middle is what links Nylander with Engvall in a way that achieves the balance the unit needs in order to perform its function.

So far the numbers certainly point to that.

But it is worth exploring what more the third line can be now that Nylander seems to be a permanent fixture of it. It's worth exploring ways Nylander can be weaponized in areas beyond the power play, where he's picked up the slack left behind by Matthews with goals in his last two games.

It's worth exhausting options to find out just how dominant Toronto's third line can be both defensively and offensively with Nylander, who can assist in either area.

It's a season that has started to drag with the Leafs knowing fairly clearly where they will finish. But there's still information to glean and data points to pore over, especially when evaluating the third line that Keefe has been so determined to make best use of from the moment he arrived.

Especially when it suddenly has a new anchor in Nylander.

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