The pros and cons of the Maple Leafs playing William Nylander at center

The Toronto Maple Leafs forward has been successful on the wing in recent years, but the team is trying something new.

Toronto Maple Leafs training camp is underway, and the most surprising early story to emerge around the team is that they intend to deploy William Nylander at center.

New GM Brad Treliving reportedly cooked up the idea, and coach Sheldon Keefe told assembled media on Wednesday that the team was going to give the experiment some time.

How much time remains to be seen, but it seems like the club is interested in shaking things up with their forward group. Nylander has played center at times during his career, but he hasn't gotten an extended look in the NHL.

Playing William Nylander is an intriguing idea that comes with both promise and drawbacks. (Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Playing William Nylander could strengthen or weaken the Maple Leafs forward group. (Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Trying him in the middle is — at the very least — an interesting idea. Here's a summary of the notion's promise as well as its possible drawbacks:

Pro: It could help balance the team's scoring

In recent years, the Maple Leafs have gotten very little offense from their bottom-six forwards. Salary cap constraints have often prevented the team from making significant investments in their third and fourth lines, while Toronto hasn't been able to graduate young players capable of compensating for that issue.

There have been occasional success stories — like Jason Spezza — but most forwards outside of Toronto's 'Core Four' who have put up strong offensive numbers lately have done so alongside two of the team's top threats.

Slotting Nylander at center could give the Maple Leafs three dangerous lines instead of two, which could bolster the team's even-strength offense, and make them less reliant on a single unit if one of their top groups isn't producing for whatever reason.

At times, last season when John Tavares and Nylander weren't clicking at even strength, there was immense pressure on Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to produce. Spreading out the offensive talent could prevent situations like that from arising again.

Con: Compromise in the top-six is inevitable — and the David Kämpf situation is more complicated

The flip side of that is that Toronto's top two lines are likely to take a step back if only three of the six players included are the team's most dangerous forwards.

On the first day of camp, the Maple Leafs iced a first line of Tyler Bertuzzi, Matthews, and Marner, which seems like a logical trio, but it left Tavares with Matthew Knies and Sam Lafferty on his flanks. It's less clear how a line like that would perform.

Last season when Tavares played without a star winger — Marner or Nylander — at 5v5, the Maple Leafs had a 44.19% shot share and 47.35% expected goal rate. If Nylander is playing center, the captain might need Marner alongside him to thrive.

Bolstering Tavares would mean breaking up a productive Matthews-Marner pairing. Matthews has played as the sole star on his line in the past — plus Bertuzzi is a better passer than he's given credit for — but separating the Maple Leafs' best forwards would be a risk.

If Nylander plays center, the Maple Leafs would be forced to either take away their top pivot's best setup man, or rely on Tavares to drive a line in his age-33 season.

The ripple effect on the bottom-six would be Kämpf moving to the fourth line. That's a role he's played before, and arguably the position in the lineup he's best suited to inhabiting, but it also means Kämpf's ability to anchor a shutdown line could be compromised.

If he's on the fourth unit that means Ryan Reeves will be stapled to his wing, which could make certain defensive situations dicey — or force coach Sheldon Keefe to double-shift some defensive-minded forwards.

Pro: One of Tavares or Nylander should get matchups they can exploit

When the Maple Leafs control the matchups, having three lines that pose a real offensive threat could be a paradigm shift.

Sheldon Keefe tends to trust the Matthews line to match up with his opponents' top line, which means that one of Tavares' or Nylander's lines will consistently be seeing third or fourth lines.

In some cases, that would mean tangling with prickly shutdown groups, but more often than not it'd mean the Maple Leafs have a sizable skill advantage.

Even on the road, when Toronto isn't in control of the matchups, opposing coaches may have a harder time putting their ducks in a row when there are more scoring lines to worry about.

Con: You're messing with success

This a simplistic argument, but that doesn't mean there's no merit to it. Nylander is coming off the best two seasons of his career and managed 40 goals for the first time in 2022-23.

The 27-year-old has continually produced strong basic numbers and possession metrics on the wing and created offense effectively alongside both of the Maple Leafs' top centers.

If the goal is to have Nylander contribute more to the team than he would've under the previous forward alignment, he's got a high bar to clear.

Pro: Nylander has the tools to handle it

While Nylander isn't known as a bruiser by any stretch of the imagination, he's six feet tall and weighs in at 204-pounds, making him one of the Maple Leafs' biggest forwards. Only Ryan Reaves, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Matthew Knies are bigger among players likely to crack the team's lineup.

He's also been a capable faceoff man when called upon with a 50.7% win percentage in 1,790 draws as an NHLer.

Nylander has the strength to survive in the middle of the ice, proof-of-concept in the faceoff dot and the kind of small-area stick handling often required of centers as they attack crowded areas of the defence.

Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Nylander-at-center idea is whether he can hold up defensively, and that's a valid concern for the Maple Leafs.

He hardly projects as a defensive ace, but his combination of speed and size make it easier to envision him holding his own than it would be for many other players with a background as offense-first wingers.

Con: Some of Nylander's best tools are suited to the wing

Nylander has some of the basic characteristics of a center, but some of what he does best is most effective on the wing.

The 27-year-old is a zone-entry wizard, and that aspect of his game might be tougher to maintain if he's spending more time in the middle of the ice. The greater defensive responsibilities of the center position can also make it harder to attack off the rush, which is something he's gotten more and more proficient at in recent years.

Playing center doesn't mean these opportunities completely disappear — Connor McDavid seems to do plenty of damage off the rush, for instance — but as a winger it can be easier to get up the ice on a counterattack.

Although Nylander has scored plenty of goals from all over, it might be trickier to steam down the middle and let shots rip from the right circle, which has always been a reliable spot for him.

There will also be angles of attack more frequently available to him as a center than a winger, but his combination of speed, puck-carrying ability, and passing makes him suited to working from the perimeter inwards — and his shot is dangerous from areas wide of the slot, which isn't true of all wingers.

Pro/Con: Nylander could price himself out of town

The market values centers more highly than wingers, and if Nylander is able to make a successful position conversion, that could make him harder for the Maple Leafs to sign to a long-term contract.

It looks like the 2024-25 season could be a major cap crunch for the Maple Leafs if they retain Nylander under any circumstances with Matthews new cap figure ($13.25M) kicking in and the Swede likely to command a sizable raise. If Nylander is able to elevate his game in any way, that raise could get even heftier, potentially rising to a point that it would no longer be feasible for the Maple Leafs to retain him.

Proving that he can effectively center a scoring line while holding up defensively would classify as taking a major step forward for Nylander.

The reason that this is also a pro is that if the sniper rises to that challenge the Maple Leafs will have gotten an outstanding contribution from him in 2023-24 that increases their chances of making something happen in the playoffs.

Nylander can only price himself out of their market by playing at an extremely high level.