Anthony Petrielli joined Sportsnet Tonight on Sunday evening to discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs at the All-Star Break, including Mike Babcock’s lineup management this season, the idea of moving Nazem Kadri to the left wing in the top six, and the Leafs’ prospects for a deep playoff run.
On William Nylander’s production and his process of getting back up to speed
I think we’re seeing him shoot the puck over the net a lot — missing the net by substantial margins, including in that Washington game, where he had the puck and a little bit of time. To me, that’s just him completely over-compensating and squeezing the stick a little tight. He’s trying to rip pucks through goalies. He’s an accurate shooter. He has a quick release on him and he can snap the puck into tight locations. Instead, we are seeing him get the puck and he’s just ripping it high and wide consistently, and we’re not seeing him drive the net consistently as hard as he has in previous years, where he’s getting it and tries to do a loop around the net to see if he can find something.
He is going to need to be a big contributor for them and they’re going to need to get him going. He will. It will come. His timing has been a little off, which is what happens when you miss the first couple of months of the season. I don’t care what anyone says — if you miss training camp and those first few months, it is really hard to come back from; really, really hard to come back from. He just kind of needs to keep going.
The other thing that we can see Babcock riding on him for is just digging in a little bit more. I think that’s kind of been the discouraging thing at times with him. It is one thing to not produce, and three points in 19 games was bordering on embarrassing at that point for a player of his calibre, but the overall lack of… “Okay, it’s not working. You’re not going to score off the rush. Park yourself in front and try to get some dirty goals and some dirty points.” We started to see him do that more recently, where he is just standing in front and he’s missed on a few rebounds or open nets.
Just get tighter and tighter to the net — I think that’s probably been some of the disconnect and the discouragement felt towards him. Everyone can understand you’re coming back and it is going to take a little while to get acclimated, but in the meantime, that doesn’t impact your work ethic. It doesn’t impact your ability to drive the net or to take hits or to get your jersey dirty, or any of those other things that can contribute to you still producing.
On Mike Babcock’s management of the team and lineup this season
I know he has been getting quite a bit of criticism this year, and I agree that I haven’t always been personally thrilled with the decisions he’s made. But I’ll say two things, in fairness.
The first thing is that Nylander kind of came in and threw a wrench into the lineup. It was hard to kind of fit him in and to know what to do with him because you’re thinking, “How do I acclimate this guy?” He starts him on the third line and it wasn’t really working, so the natural response to that is to put this top-line player back with the top-line center that he has been playing with for a few years. He still wasn’t going. It was kind of a weird dynamic. “How are we going to get Nylander going?” At the same time, this guy has missed the first couple of months of the season and he doesn’t look good. But you’re not going to bury him. You can’t bury a $7 million guy on the fourth line. You’re just not. How he has had to kind of sort it out has been a problem.
The other thing he has sort of lacked clarity on is who his top matchup line is going to be. He went into the season saying it was going to be Nazem Kadri, and that never really made sense to me because if Nazem Kadri is getting that top checking line duty, how are Matthews and Tavares’ line going to get enough ice time? He then shifted it to Tavares and Marner going against top lines and they have been okay, but Matthews really hasn’t been going. At the same time, Matthews gets hurt and he’s sorting out Nylander coming back. He puts him with Matthews, and they’re not going.
It’s a long-winded way of saying that, 1) Nylander needs to play better. Nylander needs to be worth his money. I know there will be regression and he will start scoring and all of those things, but he hasn’t been. He hasn’t been producing to nearly an acceptable enough level to be in the top nine. Once he does, that will smooth over a lot of things.
And then he needs to figure out who is going to play against top lines. He is kind of in this weird zone. No one would disagree that Nazem Kadri is one of the Leafs’ six best forwards, but because he is a center, he is automatically relegated to the third line. I think they have a serious question they need to ask themselves: Is it worth having him on the left wing and putting a power line together to go against other teams, or do they like him at the 3C role that much? I haven’t personally. Against Washington, that Brown and Nylander line with Kadri was their best line in that game and I don’t think anyone would argue it, but generally speaking, he hasn’t really ever looked good at 3C. The minutes are a bit more limited and it might be more of a soft scoring role, which I don’t think Kadri really excels in.
He is switching lines and it’s kind of like, “What is everyone doing here on a nightly basis?” He is trying to throw some things against the wall and see what sticks, but coming out of the All-Star Break now and going into the trade deadline, you could maybe argue that he has up until the trade deadline to keep jiggling things and seeing what works. But at some point, he is going to have to set his mind on a lineup and then run with it for a little bit and see what happens. To this point, I don’t think they’ve really handled the players coming in and out of the lineup and some of the slumps and all of that very well. They’ve been kind of trying to run through it and then change it. It has been a bit of a convoluted scene up front.
With all of that said, they are probably still going to finish second in their division and get home ice and be one of the best goal differential teams in the league.
On whether the Leafs are capable of winning in the playoffs as currently constructed
This is a really good question. I think there are two answers to this.
One is that I still don’t think they would be good enough defensively just yet against a top team in the matchup game. I think they would get exposed. I think that would really hurt. Going up against a deep team like Tampa, it would be really hard with that defense to win a Game 7 series unless Andersen really stood on his head — which is possible.
The other thing is that I think they have the pieces up front. Trevor Moore comes in and he’s been a really nice player for them as a potential fourth-line energy guy that I think they have kind of needed. I like their forwards in terms of the ability that they have there, but I’ll turn it and say that they have the skill but we are going to need to see more out of particularly Matthews and Nylander in the playoffs. I think that’s probably the biggest concern.
If we go and rewatch that Washington game — I needed to rewatch it twice to make sure I was seeing it right — I was watching Matthews in his own zone and three times in that game he put it right on a Washington player’s tape. There was one where he kind of had a backhand no-look play right to Kuznetsov. You can’t do that in the playoffs. Against Boston last year, I thought he was pretty exposed in his own zone. He had more than a few plays where he just completely blew coverage or didn’t know where to go or wasn’t actively engaged. We’ve kind of seen that with good teams and it’s been a theme with him.
When we talk about, “Are they good enough as currently constructed?” I think they have a lot of those pieces, but they need to play better in bigger games and they need to be more detailed. They are probably only going to learn by going through that playoff gauntlet two, three, four times.
Right now, we are watching a lot of games where — and good for Matthews that he scored a nice goal against Washington, hopefully it gets him going a little bit— he is just kind of out there floating around. He is lucky that there is John Tavares and Mitch Marner and all of these other guys — so much talent on the team — to take away that attention off of him a little bit. If he was kind of putting in those games with no one else around him, much like when Phil Kessel was here, I think he would be getting a lot more of a critical eye put on him. He is the guy at the end of the day. He is the big 6’2, 220-pound, goal-scoring 1C. It is going to be largely on him and Nylander to just play better. Straight up, can they play better?
If we are looking at some of the other guys on the team, Patrick Marleau is legitimately concerning at this point for the rest of this year. He does not look like he can belong in a top nine right now on many nights. Hopefully, he picks it up, and he was really good in the playoffs last year, I thought. But hopefully he finds that level. Hopefully, Zach Hyman is now healthy and ready to go because he has been in and out of the lineup and maybe not as effective since coming back.
They have the skill. The detail, though, and some of the understanding of the game and the pacing, they’re going to have to go through it and hopefully learn.