The Maple Leafs will be without Auston Matthews as they attempt to make it three wins in a row against the surging Nashville Predators tonight at Scotiabank Arena (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Matthews receiving a night off due to a “lingering” injury issue has paved the way for the NHL debut of Bobby McMann tonight on a line with Alex Kerfoot and David Kampf.
The 26-year-old undrafted left-shot winger — who started on an AHL deal and earned the NHL contract after a couple of years of development on the Growlers/Marlies, similar to the Justin Holl or Keith Petruzzelli track — has racked up five goals and nine points in his last six games for the Marlies. He brings a kind of lite power forward skill set to the table with a heavy shot, a willingness to drive the net, and an intriguing size and speed combination.
Pierre Engvall, usually the right winger on that Kampf line, will be moved onto a unit with Michael Bunting and William Nylander at center. We can expect shared center duties between Engvall and Nylander — for Engvall to take left-side faceoffs (Engvall’s strong side and Nylander’s weak side) and also assume center duties in open play at times to give Nylander the license to really drive this line offensively.
Injuries have been successfully navigated for the Leafs so far this season and turned into opportunities to expose players to more or different responsibilities. In Matthews’ absence, Nylander taking center reps is a worthwhile mid-season exercise. If it looks really good, it’s more of a credible option should an injury strike one of their top-six centers at a critical time of year. If it doesn’t go so well, it only underlines the need for whatever forward the team adds before the deadline to be either a natural center or a versatile enough winger to provide good minutes there.
Individually, Nylander is without a point in his last three games for the first time this season. He reportedly told Keefe that the shift to center is a positive because “it’s going to force me to move my feet again.”
The test without Matthews will come against an opponent in the Predators that is on the outside looking in on the playoff picture but is in the midst of its best stretch of hockey this season. One of the lowest-scoring teams in the league for the first 29 games (2.41 goals per game), Nashville has come to life offensively since mid-December with 3.64 goals per game in their last 10.
Winners of four straight and 7-1-2 in their 10 games, the Predators are led by the red-hot Filip Forsberg, who has seven goals in seven games, and their scoring depth has been much improved of late — 11 players have recorded four or more points in their last seven.
In net, the shortest starting goalie in the NHL remains a giant presence for the Predators. Juuse Saros is starting over 75% of his team’s games again this season and remains a model of consistency between the pipes. He sits second behind only Linus Ullmark in goals saved above expected at +20.0 through 30 games and is 6-1-1 with a .942 save percentage in his last eight.
Between their sticks heating up offensively and Saros rolling in net, the Predators’ 1.039 PDO in their last 10 games ranks third in NHL.
This should be a good test for a Leafs team missing its number-one center. The Leafs have shown the ability to step up without Matthews in the past — they went 7-2-0 without him in 2021-22 and are 30-15-2 all-time when their superstar scorer is absent.
Head to Head: Predators vs. Maple Leafs
In the season-to-date statistics, the Leafs hold the advantage over the Predators in four out of five offensive categories and three out of five defensive categories.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the expectations for Bobby McMann in his NHL debut:
Just go out and work. Any time you have a guy playing in his first game, you try not to overwhelm him too much. There is enough going on as it is.
For him, he is a guy who is at his best when he is moving his feet and skating. He is a big, strong guy. He has found a way to make his mark very quickly at the AHL level.
He is an older guy coming out of college and all of those kinds of things, but he doesn’t have a great deal of experience at the pro level. That didn’t faze him in adjusting to the AHL level. He has now had a camp and an exhibition season with us at the NHL level.
The hope is he can make an impact right away, but of course, we will be patient with him. It is a great opportunity for a player like him who has stayed with it. He has worked incredibly hard and has been an invaluable member of the organization. He gets rewarded for it tonight.
Keefe on the lineup adjustments in Matthews’ absence:
We have moved some different things around. Pierre has the ability to play down-low as well. He has played some center for us. I suspect he will spend some time there. They will interchange a little bit.
I really didn’t want to break up our other lines much. Moving Engvall breaks it up, but I think it is a good fit for McMann in his first game. That is really how the chips fell that way for me. I like keeping Willy and Bunts together.
We will see how the game goes and how it all comes together. It is a significant piece taken out of our lineup that is going to upset a lot of things. I am going to try to keep things as consistent as I can. We will monitor it as the game moves along.
Keefe on Nylander shifting to center after a quieter couple of games from him:
When I spoke to him about playing center, he said, “It is going to force me to move my feet again,” which I think is a really good thing. He is conscious of it. That is a very positive thing in terms of his development, recognizing where he is, and not being satisfied with the fact that he has had a very good season. When it slips a little bit, he is looking to bring it right back.
Keefe on the challenge against the Predators and goaltender Juuse Saros:
They are in a real groove and have found their game. They are right in the mix of a really successful road trip. They have beaten some good teams on the road.
[The challenge against Saros] is significant. He gives their team confidence. He is very good at five-on-five and on the penalty kill. Defensively, it gives them a little more confidence to play the way they do in terms of how their D push the pace up the ice. They are very active and very involved in the offense. He cleans up a lot for them.
It is the foundation of any successful team: to have reliable goaltending. They have certainly have that — not just this year but a number of years now.
Bobby McMann on his success with the Marlies of late:
We have had a lot of success as a team. I am just trying to stick to my habits of playing fast, shooting the puck well, and trying to be physical. I think that has played a really big role for me and made me the player I am right now. I am trying to stick with it and hopefully bring it to this level.
McMann on his fit on a line with David Kampf and Alex Kerfoot:
I think I fit in well. I play with some speed. Those guys are both smart players who play really well defensively. That is part of the game I can look to them to help support me with. I think we can be a strong line that moves the puck to the offensive zone, transports the puck, and hopefully, I can look for them and we can make some plays.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#58 Michael Bunting – #88 William Nylander – #47 Pierre Engvall
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #64 David Kämpf – #74 Bobby McMann
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #20 Dryden Hunt
#44 Morgan Rielly – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Mark Giordano – #25 Conor Timmins
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #30 Matt Murray
#35 Ilya Samsonov
Extras: Wayne Simmonds, Jordie Benn
Injured: Auston Matthews, TJ Brodie, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete
Nashville Predators Projected Lines
#17 Mark Jankowski – #92 Ryan Johansen – #95 Matt Duchene
#9 Filip Forsberg – #75 Juuso Parssinen – #10 Colton Sissons
#22 Nino Niederreiter – #8 Cody Glass – #64 Mikael Granlund
#13 Yakov Trenin – #82 Thomas Novak – #84 Tanner Jeannot
#27 Ryan McDonagh – #59 Roman Josi
#14 Mattias Ekholm – #45 Alexandre Carrier
#3 Jeremy Lauzon – #57 Dante Fabbro
Starter: #74 Juuse Saros
#32 Kevin Lankinen
Injured/Out: Mark Borowiecki, Cole Smith