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Johnston: Babcock says Nylander won’t be a centre next year

The Swedish star won’t be setting up shop at centre yet.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs’ postmortem press conference is today, and with that, we’re getting a lot of fun tidbits from the team and management. Most of these are banal quotes or observations like this:

But you also get some real news items like this:

As Johnston notes, this is a change from Babcock’s prior words. In February, Babcock commented that he saw William Nylander’s long-term future down the middle. This makes sense — Nylander played centre in Sweden, and in his second year with the Marlies, as well as his trial in the last few weeks of the 2015/2016 season with the Leafs.

Most, including myself, took this statement from Babcock to mean that Nylander would begin that transition starting in 2017/2018. Evidently, something has happened to change that.

Now, the caveat here is that Babcock could be smoke-screening, lying, or misdirecting in some way. In fall, it’s very possible we see Nylander at centre in training camp anyway. Wouldn’t be the first time plans have changed. But for now, let’s take Babcock at face value, and explore potential reasons why the about-face occurred, and what it means for the Leafs offseason.

Arguments for Nylander sticking to the wing:

Babcock doesn’t think Nylander is ready.

This is possible, but I find it unlikely. Babcock made his initial comments about Nylander being a long-term centre in early February. Since then, Nylander had 30 points in 34 games, stepped up his two-way game (led the Leafs in CF Rel%) was the Leafs best forward in the playoffs, and generally kicked ass. I see little in the last three months that would dissuade someone from thinking Nylander couldn’t hack it as a centre.

Nylander and Matthews are too good to break up.

This seems more plausible to me. Nylander and Auston Matthews are an elite dynamic duo. Their line, with Zach Hyman riding shotgun (and doing the yeoman’s work, it should be said) was one of the very best in the league, by almost any metric. Corsi, Scoring Chances, Expected Goals... you name it, these guys were great at it. They also became a real thorn in the side of Washington during the playoffs, dominating Evgeny Kuznetsov’s line - not easy to do, by any means. It’s possible that Babcock looks at that pairing and sees a first line for the next 15 years, and maybe compares them to the otherworldly duo Ovechkin and Backstrom have formed over the years. If you have something that great, why separate them?

The Leafs want to keep their depth.

I mentioned this in a post a while back, as did Fulemin in his recent offseason primer, but the Leafs have an interesting decision to make with Tyler Bozak. For all his flaws (not a possession driver, struggles defensively, not great at naming kids), Bozie is a useful player on a pretty fair deal. That deal expires at the end of next season. With Matthews and Kadri being stapled into the 1C and 2C roles, that leaves only one available non-grinder centre slot, given how Babcock deploys his groups. So if Nylander does become a centre next year, something has to happen to Bozak. That could be shifting him to the wing, or trading him. He’s certainly not getting demoted to 4C. Trading Bozak would likely not be a lossless transaction either. It’s more likely we downgrade than not in moving him, at least in the short term.

If Babcock is indicating Nylander will remain a winger next season, that’s perhaps an indication that they intend to let Bozak run out his contract as a Leaf, bring back the same squad of forwards, and run it again, banking on internal improvement to carry them in that regard. That may also inform what they do with JVR, but that’s unrelated to this post.

What does this mean going forward?

I touched on the potential effects of this relating to Bozak above. If the plan is to keep Nylander on the wing for a year, it means that the Leafs still need a useful 3C, for which Bozak is well qualified. More than likely, that line will have a similar role as it does this year, where they provide depth scoring in a glass cannon type of package, ideally against the lower ends of the opponents’ lineup.

The other major impact that this may have is on the commitment the Leafs will make to Nylander after next season. He’ll see his ELC expire after 2017/2018, and more than likely, the Leafs will want to sign him for a lot of years and a lot of money. However, his value to the team is notably different if he can anchor a line as a centre. Centres are simply more valuable than wingers, all else equal. If he doesn’t spend time as a centre next year, the Leafs will be making a large commitment to someone who will (almost certainly) be a proven top-line winger, but a more uncertain quantity at centre.

Given his talent, I’d bet on him being a solid centre as well, but he wouldn’t be the first great player to struggle in that transition (see Duchene, Matt). And that has significant impact on how the team should be constructed going forward, and how they should allocate cap space. If Nylander can drive his own line, especially as a centre, the Leafs can construct top-class forward groups by investing heavily in the stars and running guys who are ‘good enough’ as running-mates for them.

If you can get top-line production out of unheralded guys (like the Penguins have done with Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel), that’s found money in your pocket, and makes your lineup way more efficient. Ideally, I’d like to see if Nylander can be that type of player as soon as possible. But at the end of the day, Mike Babcock is in his shoes for a reason — once he makes his decision, all we can do is wait and see.