William Nylander: The Center or Wing Dilemma

There has always been an appeal to looking forward to the next season as Toronto Maple Leafs fans. It used to be because of how bad the team was. Thinking of the fantastical “what if” scenarios of the next season seemed to help mask the current disappointment. For the first time in a long time, it’s different.

The Leafs had a fantastic season and surpassed every and all expectation. But the thrill of thinking of next season has already started. It’s not surprising considering how this young team is still improving, so any thought about next season seems closer to reality. One thought was that William Nylander would begin his transition from the wing to center.

We now know that’s not the case.

The Plan Changed

At the beginning of the season, it looked like Nylander’s move to center would have to wait until he had fully adjusted to the NHL. Most assumed that Tyler Bozak would be traded away during the summer so that the slot at center would be open for Nylander. That plan for Nylander was still the case in February, at least according to coach Mike Babcock.

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He still viewed Nylander as a potential center for the Leafs and it made sense. Nylander had just finished his second season with the Toronto Marlies, which he spent at center. The skill was there and wasn’t an issue, but the positional demands are much greater in the NHL compared to the AHL.

So a year as a winger would be beneficial for developing into an NHL centerman. He would see what the demands are and how to play the role from watching established centermen play. This would also give him time to learn to play better defensively, which is something that Babcock seems to value in centers.

Since then, that thought seems to have changed.

The Matthews Effect

With the season over after the loss to the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, the question about Nylander came up during Babcock’s end of season press conference. Would Nylander play center next season?

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With his usual straightforwardness, Babcock said that Nylander wouldn’t be playing center. Now, this was surprising considering Nylander was expected to begin his transition to center soon. So what changed?

There are two possible reasons that stand out in my mind. The first is that Babcock doesn’t trust Nylander defensively as a center. Nylander has struggled defensively at times this season, as to be expected with a rookie, with not picking up a trailing player or getting caught out of position. That’s not to say he’s been bad, but inconsistent. And consistency in a role is something that Babcock highly values.

Another thing is that Nylander wasn’t great at faceoffs when he got the chance. Nylander only took 122 faceoffs and had a poor 40.2 faceoff win percentage. That is the worst faceoff percentage when compared to the Leafs’ usual faceoff takers. Nylander can become better at faceoffs, but it will take time and may be why Babcock is reluctant to put him at center.

The second and probably simplest reason is because of his chemistry with Matthews. They are just too good together to split apart. The benefits of the two playing together greatly outweigh Nylander’s potential as a centerman. And with what we’ve seen with Babcock’s refusal to shake up the lines, it makes sense that he intends to keep the two together on a line next season.

Many Years Left for Nylander

Now, before getting ahead of ourselves, this doesn’t rule out Nylander playing center in a few years. He’s still young at 20 years old, soon to be 21 years old, and has plenty of time to develop into a proper centerman.

As for Nylander, it’s not detrimental for him to play on the wing. He’s quickly established himself as someone who can drive the play and even set up plays while on the power play. Even though he won’t be playing center next season, he will be just as effective alongside Matthews on the wing for possibly years to come.