Anthony Petrielli joined Rob Wong and Sheri Forde on Sportsnet Tonight to discuss a whole host of Leafs topics, including William Nylander’s fit at center, Tomas Plekanec’s play since arriving in Toronto, Matt Martin’s return to the lineup, and more.

On whether William Nylander should be playing center with Auston Matthews out:

If you really look at it, what do they have to lose? They’re going to make the playoffs. They’re pretty much locked into that third spot. Nylander played center for a year in the AHL. He came up and played center in his first stint there where he played 20 or so games and he looked good at center. And then they just happened to win the lottery and they drafted a superstar, so they put him on his wing.

But he can play center. He has shown flashes. There is obviously going to be growing pains, but if your alternative is putting a guy like Tomas Plekanec, who — let’s say he goes on a bit of a heater and gets lucky production wise – might get 35 points this year. He’s at 24, I think, right now. How is that even a comparison? Nylander is probably going to be a 60-point player again this season. Obviously, Plekanec can do some things defensively and protect him a little bit, but with the spot the Leafs are in, they should load it up a little bit and see what happens.

On Tomas Plekanec’s adjustment process since the trade to Toronto:

I think Babcock has done a really good job handling it. He had some comments where he basically supported him and said, “It’ll take some time, but he’ll get going.” That was great to see. He’s struggling. He’s thinking too much. You can tell his head is constantly on a swivel, and not in the way of, “Who do I need to cover?” It’s more like, “What do I need to do?” He’s out there thinking, “Where are the wingers so I know where to be in the d-zone.” There were a few plays – I was actually in Florida for the Lightning and Panthers games – and you’d see he would push the puck to spots where guys would be and then they wouldn’t be there. There is a bit of an adjustment there and it looks new to him. That’s normal though.

The other thing is he’s not coming into a playoff race. He wasn’t traded to the Panthers, who need to win to get in. The Leafs are in. They’re making the playoffs. There is a bit of a different feeling around the group, I think. I think it’s a bit of a feeling-out process with everybody – Nylander at center, Plekanec coming in, no Matthews, it seems like the defense is different every night. They’re kind of just trying to figure out what to do.

On Ron Hainsey showing some signs of slowing down:

I was kind of wondering if this was going to happen in the middle of the season there. He was on pace to have a record amount of shorthanded ice time – not a record, but since the full-season lockout, he was going to be right up there and he still is right up there. And he’s not a spring chicken. Those are hard minutes on the PK. It’s one thing if you’re on the power play and you get to hang out on the point and pass the puck around and take slapshots and all of that fun stuff. When you’re on the PK, you’re grinding in front of the net. You’re grinding in the corners. You’re gapping up all the time. Those are hard, hard minutes. And it looks like they’ve caught up to him a little bit.

I don’t think he’s been awful, but this little break is going to be a welcome little rest for the whole team – we’ve talked about Andersen, Hainsey, even Babcock and the lineup decisions. Everyone needs a little bit of a reset right now. There is no panic – or there shouldn’t be any panic – but everyone kind of needs to step away from the rink a little bit and reset mentally and physically. Everyone is going to be fine, I think.

On the Nazem Kadri vs. Rasmus Ristolainen animosity:

There was an incident – I don’t think they even show it on TV during the game – that they had last year where Naz scored a goal and the second he scored, he basically called out Ristolainen right in his face. It was in Buffalo. They have a bit of a history, there, those two. In fairness, if I was Ristolainen, I would not have forgotten Kadri doing that to me, even a year after the fact. That’s something that sticks with players. Good for him for doing his thing and good for Naz for getting into it. As most people know, when he gets into that mode and he’s physical and he’s yappy and he’s in guys’ faces, that’s when he plays best. If there is one player that I don’t want to get rested and have a break right now, it’s Naz. I want to see him get back on the ice and keep doing what he’s doing.

On Nikita Zaitsev’s play of late:

He just really struggles with the puck. That’s his big issue — the way he handles it, and his outlet passes aren’t necessarily on the tape. He has a habit of just going off the glass pretty much automatically. When you play against top players, you get burned by that pretty quickly. That’s been a bit of an issue for him. He kind of gets exposed against the top guys. But when you limit his minutes a little bit, he usually comes out well against it. Sometimes when he’s playing 25-26 minutes a night, that’s what happens. He’s a good player, but when he gets in trouble, it’s when Babcock really leans on him too much. They just need to tone his game down a little bit.

On Matt Martin’s return to the lineup:

I was first off really happy for him for the game he played. It’s tough getting sat that long. He comes out and picks up a really nice assist – kind of flukey, but good for him. He made some things happen that game.

The thing with Martin is that he’s a legit fourth-line NHLer. He’s not Colton Orr or Frazer McLaren. People group him into that category where he’s just an enforcer who can’t play. He can take a regular shift and he has throughout his career. The issue is the Leafs are just a really deep team. The line of thought that seems to be out there that he can’t even take a shift – he definitely can, but who are you going to sit? Are you going to sit Dominic Moore? Are you going to sit Josh Leivo? Moore can play on the penalty kill and take faceoffs. Leivo can play on the power play. All Matt Martin is really going to do is take 5v5 shifts.

He can be physical and kind of add that element to a team that lacks it, by and large, but it’s hard to justify playing him with the depth they have. I agree that I’d probably play him next game.

People are acting like he’s done and I don’t think that at all. I think, when they’re in the playoffs – especially for road games where the crowd is a little amped up and the other team is amped up and a team like Boston will come out and be really physical – I’m guessing Babcock would play him, especially in that kind of road game scenario.


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