Maple Leaf Questions & Rumors: Matthews, Marner, Nylander & Gardiner

The Toronto Maple Leafs downed the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night. The Capitals came into town a road-weary team, but the game was tied 2-2 after two periods. During the third period, the rested Maple Leafs took over and roared away with a 6-3 win. In the wake of their victory and their break for the All-Star Game, it seems worth taking a look at what news or rumors pundits are discussing. Here are six questions from the Maple Leafs’ recent news:

Question 1: How Did the ‘3M Line’ Experiment Work?

Many were looking forward to the game against the Capitals, excited to see how head coach Mike Babcock’s experiment, pairing Mitch Marner with Auston Matthews, would pan out. So far so good. The line combination worked well enough for Matthews to celebrate the end of his second-longest scoring drought, at seven games.

However, more revealing was the unexpected boost from the new line combinations. Moving the top six forwards around necessitated a new third line of Connor Brown, Nazem Kadri, and William Nylander. Even if this line’s success was only for a game, what a game. Kadri got his fifth career hat trick. Nylander broke out of his scoring funk by adding three assists, and Brown added two assists. All the line’s goals were at even strength.

Nazem Kadri
Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri. (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)

What are the chances the same line combinations are used in the next game? Pretty good. It would be ludicrous to break up this third line now, although one game is not enough of a trial period to suggest much about Babcock’s long-term decisions about his offense.

Related: Have Maple Leaf Fans Turned on Nylander?

Playing Marner and Matthews together isn’t Babcock’s preference. You can detect that from his talk to the media. He noted, “We need those guys to be good every night, both of them are capable of driving a line, we need them both to drive a line. Right now, we’re doing this to get ourselves going.” Everything about this change seems temporary and Babcock is clear that this experiment will only be until the team “gets itself going.”

Question 2: Trading for a Right-Shot Defenseman?

Discussions about the Maple Leafs trading for a defenseman are rampant. Sporting News’ Lyle Richardson reported that the Maple Leafs defense remains the team’s nagging issue, particularly their need for a right-shot defenseman. Richardson reiterated a conversation between TSN’s Pierre LeBrun and colleague Bob McKenzie, who reported that the team might be willing to part with their 2019 first-round pick for a defenseman. McKenzie countered that a first-rounder wouldn’t likely be enough and that the Maple Leafs would have to add one of their good young forwards, Kaspari Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson, to the deal.

In another forum, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos weighed in on this topic, suggesting that the asking price for a top-four, right-shot defenseman is high. He agreed that the Maple Leafs would trade their 2019 first-round pick. However, he suggested that the team would not trade Kapanen, Johnsson, or young prospect, Rasmus Sandin.

Finally, Elliotte Friedman suggested Jake Muzzin of the Los Angeles Kings or Radko Gudas of the Philadelphia Flyers as affordable options for the Maple Leafs. Muzzin is a left-shot rearguard who can play on his off side. Gudas is a gritty right-side defenseman who usually skates on the Flyers’ third pairing and might be available.

Dubas said he would be open to adding a rental player on an expiring contract prior to the trade deadline, but his preference is for a player who would remain on the roster beyond the spring.

Question 3: Is Jake Gardiner’s Staying or Leaving?

TSN’s Darren Dreger noted that, although Jake Gardiner has been booed relentlessly by Maple Leaf fans recently, the 28-year-old defenseman will stay in Toronto. Dreger noted that the Leafs are expected to try to re-sign Gardiner, who will be an unrestricted free agent in July. I don’t agree: my inclination is that Gardiner will receive a better offer from another team and will move on this summer.

Related: Why Jake Gardiner Will Leave the Toronto Maple Leafs

Question 4: Will William Nylander Be Traded?

Is once-upon-a-time, 60-point winger William Nylander on the move after signing a six-year, $45 million contract with the Maple Leafs? Sportsnet’s Brian Burke thinks so. He predicted that, if the Maple Leafs can’t get the defenseman they want before this season’s trade deadline, they would consider using Nylander as trade bait in the summer.

Burke suggested that the team already has a number of smaller, skilled forwards and will try to move the 22-year-old winger. Until his three assists against the Capitals, Nylander had struggled to get his game going since his return on Dec. 1. However, Burke believes he’s a valuable asset who can fetch a solid player in a trade.

Nylander Matthews Maple Leafs CP
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews and William Nylander (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

As to general manager Kyle Dubas’ promise that he wouldn’t trade Nylander? Burke notes that it wouldn’t be the first time a GM went back on his word about a possible trade.

Question 5: Dubas’ Thinking on His Young Forwards?

Will Marner and Matthews sign new contracts soon? Both 21-year-old forwards are scheduled to become restricted free agents (RFAs) on July 1. Both are also in line for big raises, but CBC sports reports that Dubas isn’t pressuring either player to sign quickly. That said, Dubas is talking with Matthews’ agent about a new contract, but Marner’s agent has requested that similar conversations wait until the season’s end.

Matthews’ next extension could raise the bar set by Connor McDavid’s eight-year, $100-million contract signed in 2017. It will be interesting to see what happens here.

Dubas believes signing either player won’t be financially difficult because the Leafs will have about $27 million in salary cap space. Although getting a deal done with Matthews before the Feb. 25 trade deadline would help the team plan its course of action, Dubas noted that, for players, “It’s a life-changing decision.”

Dubas also had complimentary things to say about Marner. “Anybody who has as much talent as he does, that works as hard as he does, that loves hockey as much as he does, you’re going to see continued growth. His impact on the team is immense.” He added that Marner is a “fantastic player that we’re very fortunate and proud to have as a Maple Leaf.”

Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner
Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Dubas also stuck up for Gardiner, his high-risk/high-reward defenseman. “Jake is a player that has the puck a lot. When you play hockey and have the puck a lot and you try to be creative and you make skill plays, from time to time they’re not going to go your way.” He noted that Gardiner’s positives far outweighed his negatives.

Question 6: What’s the Injury Update?

Not much has changed with the injury update. Tyler Ennis is out indefinitely with a broken ankle and there is currently no timetable for his return. Gardiner’s back spasms have kept him out of the last two games and it’s not yet known if he will skate against the Detroit Red Wings on Feb. 1 but the All-Star break will give him time to heal. And, Andreas Johnsson’s concussion makes it uncertain if he will play against the Red Wings, either.

What’s Next?

The Maple Leafs are now off until after the All-Star Game, giving the team a chance to rest and rehab. There are a number of injuries to overcome. It’s nice to end January with a win, but there’s lots of hockey left to play when the team returns to the ice for a quick road game in Detroit on Feb. 1.

Related – Maple Leafs News: Nylander, Lamoriello, Matthews & Team MVP