Toronto Maple Leafs Need Two-Way Center To Play With William Nylander

The Toronto Maple Leafs are playing the best hockey they have all season. They have won 14 of their last 20 games, but this team still has plenty of holes to fill before the March 8th trade deadline.

Maple Leafs need a center to play with William Nylander
Maple Leafs need a center to play with William Nylander / Claus Andersen/GettyImages
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Following Saturday night's win against the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs Head Coach Sheldon Keefe was asked about the reason behind benching William Nylander, Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi.

Needless to say, the Toronto Maple Leafs coach was not happy with his star-studded second line.

And he has a point: over the last 5 Maple Leaf games Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and William Nylander rank one, two and three in most shots allowed per 60 minutes at five-on-five while on the ice.

Over this five-game stretch, all three of these guys are averaging being on the ice for over 40 shots per 60 minutes. This is far higher than the next guy on the list at only 33.05 shots allowed per 60 minutes.

Even though Keefe is right in this line needing to play better defense, he needs to understand that
asking a combination of Bertuzzi, Domi and Nylander to play sound team defence is like asking a first-grader to solve world hunger - it is just not going to happen.

Toronto Maple Leafs Trying To Fit Square Pegs In Round Holes

On the year, Bertuzzi, Nylander and Domi all rank inside the bottom 30 percent of forwards in the NHL in defensive wins above replacement (WAR). Bertuzzi is the one that ranks in the 30th percentile, but Domi is down in the 17th percentile and Nylander is all the way down in the 11th percentile of forwards in defensive WAR.

The crazy thing is, all three of these guys have have improved their defensive WAR this season. Looking at the last three years, Bertuzzi ranks in the 18th percentile, Domi is in the fourth percentile and Nylander is in the seventh percentile among forwards in defensive WAR over the last three years (via @JFreshHockey)

Over the last five games the Maple Leafs have played, they only have four players with a expected goals for percentage under 50 percent. If you guessed that Bertuzzi, Domi and Nylander make up three of those four names, you would be right.

Simply put, you cannot put three sub-par defensive players together and expect them to play shutdown defence. But with John Tavares finding his game on the third line, the Maple Leafs have nothing else to experiment with in their top six. If the Maple Leafs want to fix this issue, they are going to have to look outside of the organization before the trade deadline later this week.

The 'Perfect' Fit In The Maple Leafs Top Six

At last years trade deadline the Maple Leafs were able to make a deal with the St. Louis Blues for Ryan O'Reilly, one of the best two-way centers in the NHL. Unfortunately for the Maple Leafs, there is no one of O'Reilly's calibre on the market at this year's deadline for that second-line center position, but there is one guy on the market that I think would fit perfectly alongside William Nylander.

The Columbus Blue Jackets captain Boone Jenner is that guy. Jenner is 30 years old and is signed for 3.55 million dollars through the 2025-26 season (via CapFriendly), meaning the Maple Leafs would have his rights for two more years following this season if they were to acquire him.

Jenner has spent his entire career with the Blue Jackets and has set a new career high in points each of the last two seasons. But the Blue Jackets have spent the past few drafts loading up on talent at the Center position. Since 2021, they have drafted Adam Fantilli, Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger all in the first round and are all players the Blue Jackets are very high on.

As these three kids continue to develop they will be demanding more ice time in the coming years. With this development, Jenner will likely be the one phased out of this team in a year or two, but the Blue Jackets would be smart to move him now with plenty of teams looking to buy and Jenner's stock will never be higher.

On the year, Jenner ranks in the top 26 percent of forwards in defensive WAR playing for an abysmal Blue Jackets team. Jenner brings some size, he is a physical, positionally sound player who would take a lot of pressure off of the Maple Leafs defensemen in their end. He would add a much-needed defence presence alongside Nylander. Jenner also ranks in the top eight percent in finishing among forwards this season which would also pair well alongside Nylander who ranks in the top five percent of forwards in high-danger passing and top seven percent in chance assists. (via @JFreshHockey)

Until the Maple Leafs get a defensive-minded guy to play alongside Nylander they are going to be dealing with defensive issues on his line. Nylander loves to take chances and take big risks, which is fine is certain situations. But you have to have players around him that understand how to support that.

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Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi do not have the first clue how to do that, and it's pretty evident with these three guys being on the ice for at least 3.6 high-danger chances against at five-on-five over their last five games. Jenner would at least help in that regard and would add a consistent scoring touch.