I gave William Nylander the nod in my unofficial, totally meaningless Toronto Maple Leafs’ midseason MVP rankings.
Auston Matthews is going to pass him, if he hasn’t already. And if he can keep scoring like this and somehow power the Leafs to another 100-plus-point season (and playoff berth), he’ll merit serious consideration for his second Hart Trophy. He’ll likely also win his third Rocket Richard Trophy in doing so.
Matthews scored again in Seattle on Sunday night, his 24th goal in the last 23 games and 38th goal in 44 games this season.
Matthews has scored at least once in exactly half of his games. He has 12 multi-goal games, including four hat tricks. That’s four hat tricks, to repeat, in just over half a season.
Matthews is on pace to become the first player in three decades to score 70 goals in a season.
His scoring has become all the more essential to the Leafs in the last couple months as John Tavares, Tyler Bertuzzi, Matthew Knies and Max Domi, among others, all struggle to score. Consider this crazy stat: Matthews has scored 27 percent of the Leafs’ total goals — 24 of 88 — since Dec. 1.
He has exactly double the next closest Leaf, Mitch Marner.
Where would the Leafs be if he wasn’t scoring like this?
And even though he has only 18 assists all year, Matthews is on pace for just over 100 points thanks to all that scoring.
The overall domination is there, too: The Leafs have outscored teams 24-11 at five-on-five since that Dec. 1 marker, when Matthews’ season really turned around, winning over 60 percent of the expected goals.
It will likely take Matthews winning the Rocket and eclipsing the 64 goals that Connor McDavid scored last year to beat out, well, McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, David Pastrnak, Artemi Panarin, Quinn Hughes and others for the MVP.
The Athletic placed him sixth in the latest awards watch column.
Matthews’ stock keeps rising.
1. Ilya Samsonov won for the first time since Dec. 9 with a solid performance in Seattle. Samsonov made the saves he was supposed to make and a few more he wasn’t. (The Kraken, missing some key players, had very little going offensively.) Is it enough to earn him Wednesday’s start against the Jets? More curiously: Has he done enough to keep himself around when Joseph Woll returns (presumably) after the All-Star break? Martin Jones has given up 20 goals in his last five starts. He has an .857 save percentage in that stretch, yielding 3.6 goals above expected. He also leads the Leafs in wins (!) and kept the team’s season afloat while Woll was hurt and Samsonov was scuffling. Do the Leafs keep three goalies for a while — Woll, Jones and Samsonov? And if not, who do they trust more to share the net with Woll: Jones or Samsonov?
2. Mind-blowing but true: Nick Robertson has scored one more five-on-five goal this season than Tavares. He’s scored two more than Bertuzzi and three more than Domi.
All this in wayyyy fewer games and wayyyy fewer minutes.
Leafs’ forwards five-on-five goals
Robertson has been a scratch more often over the last month and struggles to get on the ice when he plays. He logged just under nine minutes against the Kraken. His scoring hasn’t been enough to earn him more ice time, to this point.
3. An eight-game point drought seems inconsequential when you consider that Tavares has gone 20 straight games without a five-on-five goal. That’s a quarter of the season. Tavares has scored one five-on-five goal in his last 29 games. The struggles are real right now for the Leaf captain and a legitimate reason for concern.
4. On the ice with just over one minute left in regulation and the Leafs nursing a one-goal lead in Seattle: Pontus Holmberg.
5. Matthews’ six backhand goals are tied with Zach Hyman for the league lead.
6. Bertuzzi has had many, many glorious chances of late, but is still stuck on just one goal since Nov. 28, a stretch of 26 games. He has only 38 shots in that span, around 1.5 per game. That’s two-thirds of the Leafs’ No. 2 line not scoring at all, which explains, in part, the recent offensive struggles. (Bertuzzi did make the first play on Robertson’s goal in Seattle, his 14th assist of the season.)
7. One change that feels overdue on a penalty kill that ranks 26th in the league: Scale Mark Giordano back from his role on the top pair with T.J. Brodie and replace him with Jake McCabe. The oldest player in the league has too often just been a step slow of late. The underlying metrics for him killing penalties this month aren’t pretty. McCabe took Giordano’s place on PK1 Sunday night while Giordano was out of the lineup. The Leafs penalty kill went 2-for-2.
8. Ryan Reaves has been practising with the Leafs for weeks and claims to be fully healthy. How is he still on injured reserve, for one thing? And when he is activated, who’s gone? The Leafs have a full 23 players on their active roster (with Woll due to return soon). Is it William Lagesson who goes on waivers? Is it Reaves?
This was supposed to be the year that it happened for Liljegren; that he became fully entrenched in the top four.
It just hasn’t happened, yet.
Liljegren played only 15 minutes in Edmonton last week and 14 minutes in Calgary two nights later. He no longer plays a regular role on the penalty kill, having been passed in that regard by Simon Benoit.
Which tells you something about how the coaching staff feels: They trust Benoit more.
It was only late this past week that the Leafs began giving Liljegren the nod on the second pair in place of Benoit. Liljegren had, before then, mostly occupied third-pairing duty alongside Giordano while Benoit played alongside McCabe.
Ideally, the Leafs could send some more difficult minutes to the Liljegren-McCabe pairing and ease the strain on Morgan Rielly and Brodie up top.
“He’s a guy that we talk about daily in terms of needing and wanting more out of,” coach Sheldon Keefe said when asked about Liljegren in Vancouver on Saturday. “I think he’s got more to give us there.”
Liljegren’s development has been hurt in each of the past two seasons by, well, injuries. Offseason hernia surgery kept him out of the first 11 games two seasons ago. A high-ankle sprain knocked him out for 17 games this past fall.
It’s left him racing to catch back up to his peers every time.
“We need (Liljegren) to skate and move pucks well and get pucks to the net and defend the rush really well,” Keefe said. “I don’t think he’s done that to the level that we expect or have seen.”
The fact that the Leafs are still in need of a defenceman to play in their top four is partly about Liljegren still not being a sure thing there. Liljegren was scratched for most of the past two postseasons.
This is, quietly, a contract year for him.
What do the Leafs have in the 24-year-old? It feels like he’s still answering that question.
A radical idea
The Leafs — and Keefe specifically — might want to use the upcoming bye week and All-Star break to reconsider a radical idea that was quickly shelved at training camp: Moving Nylander to centre.
The purpose: Deepen the lineup and lighten Tavares’ load.
This was the Brad Treliving-inspired plan, remember, at the outset of camp. And clearly, Keefe had no appetite for it. He ditched it after one preseason game (and doesn’t seem to trust Nylander to handle the job defensively). Nylander has responded with the best season of his career, so it’s not like moving him back to the wing hasn’t worked.
However, the same problems that inspired the idea remain and you could argue have even gotten worse — namely, Tavares’ struggling to keep up at age 33 and Domi being an unreliable 3C (he had another gorgeous assist in Seattle, but still played only 10 minutes).
It’s not easy to make the puzzle pieces all fit still, but a construction like this, somewhat mirroring what the Leafs had initially at camp, might work in creating more balanced scoring:
Bertuzzi — Matthews — Marner
Holmberg — Nylander — Domi
Knies — Tavares — Järnkrok
McMann — Kämpf — Gregor
This would take Domi out of the middle and pair him with Nylander, a twosome that flashed some chemistry in the preseason. Keefe could stuff them in the offensive zone. Two strong skaters, meanwhile, would be paired up with Tavares.
The Leafs would still need to lean on the Matthews unit for the bulk of defensive zone assignments but could get some help from the Tavares and Kämpf units.
Or, if the Leafs decide it’s time to move the captain to the wing, maybe they go for a look like this:
Bertuzzi — Matthews — Marner
Tavares — Nylander — Domi
Knies — Holmberg — Järnkrok
McMann — Kämpf — Gregor
Do they trust Holmberg enough, on either end, to take over as the 3C?
More pertinently, do they trust Nylander to take over as the 2C? Maybe they simply challenge Nylander, their longest-contracted player, to do this. It’s a desperate times kind of thing. Short of trading for another centre, what’s the play for making this work better than it does currently?
Is it likely, moving Nylander midseason to a position he’s barely played in the NHL? No. Not even a little. But maybe it’s the kind of extreme shakeup the Leafs and their coach need to consider again and even explore.
(Top photo of Auston Matthews scoring against Seattle’s Joey Daccord: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)
— Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey