The forthcoming arrival of Auston Matthews is huge for the Maple Leafs. That goes without saying. For a team that has been without the prototypical 'big, skilled, number one centre' since Mats Sundin, Matthews is pretty much a godsend. He instantly becomes the Leafs best prospect (a hard thing to do, considering how good William Nylander and Mitch Marner are), and projects to be their star pivot for the future.
Naturally, that leads to the question of how Matthews' arrival affects other Leafs prospects, particularly ones down the middle. I've seen it floated out there that Nylander should be moved to the wing to accomodate the Arizona native, especially in light of Nazem Kadri's recent contract extension making him a clear long-term component of the team's centre depth. Brendan Shanahan also said that getting the #1 draft pick doesn't change their free agency plans. So if the Leafs were planning on going for Steven Stamkos before, they still are now.
Certainly, the TSN crew thinks this is the case. In the aftermath of the draft lottery, their panel came up with the below projected roster for the Leafs this year:
This was created by Dave Poulin, so I wasn't expecting much, but the one thing that really stands out to me is that they shifted Nylander to the wing. The idea seems to be that Mike Babcock wanted to acclimate Nylander to the NHL by starting him off at the wing, but injuries forced him to play the Swede down the middle. Now that Babcock has the luxury of actual centres, he'll surely move Nylander to the wing, right?
To me, that is a faulty line of thinking, for a few reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, it ignores that Nylander's NHL cameo as a centre was really, really successful. Nylander scored 1.73 primary points / 60 at 5v5 last year, which is not only first line territory, but ranked 33rd leaguewide, among players who played more than 200 5v5 minutes (per Corsica.hockey). And his on-ice shooting percentage was a paltry 6.77%; while his personal shooting percentage was quite elevated (15.4%), his linemates shot the puck like Colton Orr.
Stylistically, Nylander is more of a passer than a shooter, and personally I think it'd be hard to argue that his numbers were heavily bolstered by puck luck. Beyond the point scoring, Nylander was an excellent possession player for the Leafs. He had a positive impact on both shot generation and shot suppression, and while he was sheltered to some degree, that doesn't invalidate the results he saw (especially since usage differences tend to be rather marginal). Quite simply, Nylander was an excellent NHL centre, and it says a lot that Babcock kept him there throughout his abbreviated stint with the Leafs. If Nylander floundered as a centre, I feel Babcock would have shifted him to the wing for his own sake, lack of centres be damned. I don't see why it makes sense to shift a good (and presumably improving) centre to the wing. He's shown he can handle it.
Secondly, the idea of moving Nylander to the wing ignores that Nylander has largely played centre in his pre-NHL career. While he began his Marlies career in 2014/2015 on the wing, he played all of 2015/2016 as the best centre for the best team in the AHL. He played centre for Modo as well. He's been developed as a centre, and it seems like the idea that he's a winger has only arisen because he doesn't have 'prototypical centre size', and because when he was drafted, people referred to him as a winger. The first isn't really accurate (Nylander is listed at the same height as Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux). The second is outdated, and shouldn't really factor into anyone's decision-making anymore.
Lastly, Nylander is both better and more valuable as a centre. His game is well suited to the role -- his vision, skating ability, and puck skills make him the one guy you want to have the puck more than anyone else. It makes sense to put him in a role where he can impact the game as much as possible when he's on the ice, and to me, that's down the middle.
It's tempting to look at the Leafs depth chart and balk at keeping Nylander at centre, simply because it's weird that one of Kadri, Matthews, and Nylander are nominally the 'third line center'. But that's the thing... that's purely a naming convention. Whoever ends up being third on the depth chart isn't marginalized by that -- there's enough ice time to go around that they'll all be able to get good minutes, powerplay time, and advantageous matchups. Ask the Penguins if they regret being able to run Crosby - Malkin - Staal down the middle. Ask their opponents how frightening that must've been to face.
The Leafs also have a pretty talented base of wingers as it is (both prospects and current players). It's not as if we need Nylander to be on the wing in order to give Kadri or Matthews someone decent to play with. James van Riemsdyk is a first line winger, and Mitch Marner projects to be an offensive dynamo in the NHL. Decent free agent wingers are literally always available for relatively cheap, and the Leafs have a bevy of talented prospects who we hope can step into a scoring role in the NHL (Connor Brown, Brendan Leipsic, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Andreas Johnson, etc.). The team still needs centre depth more than it does on the wing. Making William Nylander a winger runs counter to that, and isn't something the Leafs should do -- even with Auston Matthews.