William Nylander impresses Mike Babcock with play at center

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 6: William Karlsson
TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 6: William Karlsson /

With Auston Matthews unable to play on the second half of a back-to-back, William Nylander stepped in for the Toronto Maple Leafs and impressed Mike Babcock.

The discussion around playing William Nylander at center cooled down a bit this season especially at the beginning when he and Auston Matthews were putting on a show together on the same line. The Toronto Maple Leafs did not have a pressing need to play Nylander down the middle that was until Sunday night.

After beating the Pittsburgh Penguins it was clear that Matthews was banged up after colliding with Morgan Rielly. The Leafs decided to give Matthews the night off and usually that would mean Patrick Marleau would move into Matthews’ spot but this time Mike Babcock gave Nylander the choice of where he would line up.

After spending the past few games on the fourth line, moving to center would give him a chance to lead his own trio. Nylander replaced Matthews playing with Zach Hyman and Connor Brown which makes sense because of the familiarity and defensive reliability that both wingers provide.

While the performance of the night went to Curtis McElhinney making 41 saves including two breakaways for Connor McDavid for the shutout, it is hard to ignore what Nylander was able to do.

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Considering Nylander has been stapled to the fourth line, seeing him step in Matthews’ absence should provide some encouragement especially if Matthews is forced to miss more time. This would also give the Leafs a chance to see what Nylander can do at center if they decide to go down that route next season.

With the number of wingers the Leafs have waiting for an opportunity, one way to open up some space would be to move a player like Nylander to center. Now this is only one game so if Babcock wants to get a better sense of what Nylander can do down the middle, he will need to get more reps.

The 21-year old has been taking faceoffs on his strong side when he was playing with Matthews so he is capable of taking draws. The defensive responsibility of playing at center is what many believe to be the major hurdle for Nylander.

It shows that having a capable defensive winger could help Nylander but he has shown that he is capable of being responsible defensively. Part of that is his strong play with the puck where he has 17 takeaways and 14 giveaways.

He is one of the best puck handlers on the team which allows him to create space for himself and his linemates. If he is given a more offensive minded winger to play with along with a defensive minded winger, the Leafs might have some options to consider going into next season.

It would not be surprising to see Nylander get more opportunities to play at center, but once Matthews is back it would be more beneficial to reunite that line especially for the playoffs. Then if Babcock feels that Nylander is ready then that will be the right time to make the move permanent.

What do you think of Nylander playing at center, should it wait until next season or should the Leafs continue to give him a chance to play there? Let us know in the comments.