Why the Leafs should commit to the Matthews-Nylander pairing

Auston Matthews and William Nylander play together nightly on the power play, but they need 5-on-5 time, too. (Getty Images)
Auston Matthews and William Nylander play together nightly on the power play, but they need 5-on-5 time, too. (Getty Images)

Right now, Auston Matthews is experiencing one of those lulls where he looks more like a rookie with a thing or two to learn than Captain America on skates.

That’s bound to happen with any 19-year-old, franchise-altering talent or not. There’s no need for Toronto Maple Leafs fans to panic or assert that the league has figured him out or any such nonsense.

However, perhaps it is time to ponder whether the Maple Leafs could be doing a little more to help Matthews ratchet up his production down the stretch. When the team put him on a line with Zach Hyman and Connor Brown, there was some concern that he wouldn’t have enough offensive skill around him to produce to his potential.

Early on in the experiment, that proved to be patently false as the threesome had no difficulty tickling the twine and Matthews looked as dangerous as ever. In recent weeks, it’s been a different story.

Over the last 12 games, the rookie centre’s wingers have produced a grand total of one even-strength goal and, as a result, Matthews has posted a relatively modest six points. So, how do the Maple Leafs get their star rookie back to his previous world-destroying ways?

On Saturday, the team briefly tried pairing Matthews with Mitch Marner to get an offensive boost, but the move didn’t yield the desired results and was scrapped quickly. The addition of Marner helps any line, but the Maple Leafs are likely best served keeping the current trio intact as it’s been their most consistent scoring unit. That leaves one possible answer to the Matthews question: William Nylander.

Nylander and Matthews shared a line earlier in the season with great success, but when the latter had his first significant cold streak they were broken apart. They play together on the second power play unit, and share the odd shift with Nazem Kadri, but Mike Babcock would do well to commit to keeping them together full-time. On Thursday against the St. Louis Blues, the game began with a Nylander-Matthews reunion, but the Maple Leafs coach went back to his standard lines after a single bad period.

The attraction of the dynamic rookie pairing isn’t very hard to see. Nylander is a clear upgrade over Brown in terms of offensive dynamism, and would bring some serious flash back to the Matthews line. In fact, over the aforementioned 12-game period, the Swede has done more in the way of producing offence than Brown and Hyman, while putting up better possession numbers on a line that takes the toughest defensive assignments on the team:

Beyond the recent statistics, the underlying stats also suggest that Matthews and Nylander belong together, as both produce far better possession numbers at five-on-five when they’re on the ice at the same time:

This isn’t a case of Nylander benefiting from the privilege of jumping over the boards with Matthews, it’s a partnership that helps both sides. The reason it works is because their styles mesh perfectly.

Nylander specializes in attacking with speed on the perimeter and feeding the middle of the ice with precision passes. Matthews has made his name so far finding space in the slot for fast-release snap shots and going to the net to make use of his excellent hands. Nylander sets them up, Matthews knocks them down.

Maple Leafs fans got their first taste of the duo’s potential together as Matthews put his fourth goal on the board in his debut against the Ottawa Senator. Courtesy of Sportsnet:

It was just a give-and-go, but the play demanded a delicate pass from Nylander and a sturdy finish from Matthews, and both made their part look easy.

Perhaps their best such effort came against the Edmonton Oilers when Nylander was in the midst of his fourth-line sojourn, but managed to get in a shift with Matthews to work a little magic. The result was the 10th goal of the American’s career:

Once again, both sides of this marker are difficult and are made to look simple. This is the kind of goal you can only get when you pair two gifted players together.

The reasons Matthews and Nylander have been separated aren’t utterly without merit. The Maple Leafs want to shelter Matthews less and play him against tough competition, so they’ve chosen more defensively-adept linemates for him in Hyman and Brown.

The odd domino effect of that is that the less-defensive Nylander ends up on the team’s top shutdown line and then finds himself subbed out in key defensive situations for Nikita Soshnikov or Ben Smith. It’s far from an ideal situation for the 20-year-old to produce offensively, and it’s hard for him to learn a two-way game when he’s been airlifted out at the first sign of trouble.

While there is method to Babcock’s madness here, sometimes it’s best to apply an Occam’s razor approach to line building. When Matthews and Nylander are on the ice together it looks good on paper and highlight reels, and they are likely to fill nets with consistency. That should be enough of a reason to attach them at the hip from here on out.