GRAVENHURST, Ont. — The Toronto Maple Leafs came into training camp this fall determined to see if William Nylander could play centre for them this season.
For real. Not in the way they had sporadically dropped him into the middle throughout his first seven-plus seasons in the NHL.
Which is why something seemed amiss when, a week before the start of the regular season, Nylander was suddenly back on John Tavares’ right wing at practice.
Leafs practice lines:
Bertuzzi — Matthews — Marner
Domi — Tavares — Nylander
Knies — Minten — Järnkrok
McMann — Kämpf — Reaves
Extras: Robertson, Lafferty, Gregor, Holmberg, Clifford
Rielly — Brodie
McCabe — Benoit
Giordano — Liljegren
Kokkonen — Lagesson/Lajoie
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) October 4, 2023
According to head coach Sheldon Keefe, the move had nothing to do with Nylander and his acclimation to centre at camp.
“It was really just about getting Fraser Minten in the mix,” Keefe said. “It’s not a reflection of Willy at all. We need to make a decision on Fraser obviously.”
Keefe suggested that Minten, who just turned 19 in July, could really crack the Leafs roster. “He’s still here,” the coach said of the team’s 2022 second-round pick. “Everybody that’s here has a chance to make the team.”
Keefe may insist the two are not related, but there’s no getting around this: If the Leafs and their coach were truly pleased with what they’d seen with Nylander at centre there would be no spot for Minten to even challenge for.
Minten isn’t an option if the Leafs had loved or even liked what they’ve seen from Nylander in a new position.
Nylander hasn’t looked awesome at centre, especially the other night against Montreal when his line (with Max Domi and Nick Robertson) spent most of the game in its own zone. And yet, the only way for Nylander to acclimate, or so the thinking went at the outset of camp, was to let him get more and more reps, more experience than he’s had to this point in the NHL.
“Obviously the more I play the more comfortable I’ll become,” Nylander told The Athletic after Wednesday’s practice in Gravenhurst, which concluded a brief retreat for the team north of Toronto. “But it’s not like I feel uncomfortable (playing centre).”
Nylander has played only two exhibition games at centre so far this fall. Not much runway in other words. The Leafs could have given him a third game opposite Detroit on Thursday, but have opted instead for Minten.
Nylander says his biggest challenge comes with the defensive responsibility of the position. “It’s just the way we play the system in the D-zone, when to close on guys and when to not go,” he said.
Added Keefe: “It’s about your low play, down below the dots. You gotta close quickly. And it takes more energy, obviously, covering more ice to come back and get to that space, and you cover more ice to get up the ice and get back on offence. So it’s just — it’s harder. There’s more effort required.
“I think he fits the skill set really well,” Keefe went on. “But as we said from Day 1 of camp, he’s always gonna play both (positions).”
Centre and wing, that is.
Nylander is slated to play with Tavares and Domi in the Leafs’ second-last preseason game on Thursday night — the one that will feature most of the likely opening-night lineup.
Could this be a jolt to Nylander, that more will be expected of him if he’s to remain at centre? That the team is willing to use an untested teenager there instead?
Clearly, the Leafs coach isn’t stoked about the other non-Nylander options, like moving David Kämpf back into the 3C position he spent most of last season in.
So, Minten will get a look alongside Matthew Knies and Calle Jarnkrok against the Red Wings. Minten and Knies have shown great chemistry throughout the preseason.
“I can tell there’s a bond being created.”
Off the ice, Matthew Knies and Fraser Minten are becoming close friends.
And on the ice, they’ve dominated preseason games on the same line.
Add it up and their Maple Leafs future together could be bright.https://t.co/ozmkVHhLTo
— Joshua Kloke (@joshuakloke) October 1, 2023
Keefe has raved about Minten and said he was especially impressed by his performance in Montreal last week when he spent time against both Nick Suzuki and Kirby Dach. The minutes against Dach were sparse, though (1:28). In the four minutes and change that he went up against Suzuki, shot attempts were 6-1 in favour of Montreal. But he was playing the second half of a back-to-back and held his own against quality competition.
“It’s a combination of whether he’s ready for us and whether we’re ready for him,” Keefe said. “We’ll sort through that. But while we have games to play, we’re gonna use them and give him an opportunity to grow and develop, whether it results in him sticking around this year, or just helps him to be closer when he comes back and to set him up for success if he were to go back (to junior).”
Minten hasn’t looked out of place on the whole, his poise in particular. Even he was expecting a return to junior later this fall.
“I want to just continue the trajectory that I’ve gone on with steady growth in every area,” Minten told The Athletic after Friday’s preseason game in Montreal. “I still want to stay a super responsible player. I’ll get more opportunities to put up offence this year for sure, with a lot of the departures we had in Kamloops.”
If Minten does not make the team, as still seems likeliest, he’ll return to the Blazers, where he’ll likely be named captain after playing one preseason game with the “C” for the Blazers earlier this fall.
A spot on Canada’s world juniors team is looking more and more likely.
Nothing can be ruled out obviously. Keefe has shown over his years as Leafs coach that he’s willing to go against conventional wisdom.
The Leafs could give Minten a handful of games and see how he acquits himself. They could still send him back to Kamloops without burning a year off his entry-level deal.
If not Minten, the question becomes, who’s playing centre for the Leafs besides Auston Matthews, Tavares and Kämpf?
It’s worth noting the Nylander-to-centre idea came from new GM Brad Treliving and wasn’t something Keefe showed any appetite for previously. After just two exhibition games, it’s hard for the team and its coach to say they’ve given it a real go.
Time will tell if Nylander gets another chance — or if the experiment was doomed before it started.
(Top photo: Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)