Auston Matthews is a Toronto Maple Leaf. It happened. The ‘if Auston comes to Toronto…’ is over. Now comes the ‘where does Auston fit in Toronto?’ Rumours and speculation had been running rampant since before the Leafs had even won the first overall pick. But now we can actually hear from Leafs coaches and management.
Just what do you do with Auston Matthews?
This, apparently. There’s a lot to unpack in this tweet. Matthews starting as third line centre. Kadri and Bozak as first and second line centres, potentially in that order. Nylander on the wing, and potentially on Matthews’ wing.
Starting Matthews as the Leafs third line centre is a solid plan. Matthews has already proven he can play in a men’s league with the ZSC Lions, so he should have very little issue fitting into the NHL style from the European ice. He also doesn’t have to stay on the third line, it’s not a forever deal. If he’s struggling, he can drop down to 4th, take on fewer minutes. If he’s excelling, he can move up. But a quick look at the recent Oilers will show just how potentially foolish throwing a first overall pick straight into first line NHL minutes can be.
With Matthews as the third line centre, that means, as of today, he is starting behind Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak. Potentially (hopefully) in that order. Ideally, Bozak will be traded away, leaving Kadri as a great second line centre, and a hole right where an elite first liner could slot right in (hint, hint, Tampa Bay). Or, if not that, Kadri steps up to the first line, Matthews to the second, and the Leafs can pull from the insane depth of the Toronto Marlies for the third and fourth lines. Perhaps Sam Carrick?
Placing Nylander on the wing is another interesting move. Placing Nylander potentially on Matthews’ wing is even more interesting. Nylander has spent the last two seasons with the Marlies playing centre, leading to a great deal of speculation that he was potentially being groomed as Bozak’s replacement, or that the Leafs may simply have too many centres. But what could actually be happening is something that the Leafs haven’t seen a while… Forward planning. Marner can play both centre and wing, getting Nylander the same experience gives the Leafs versatility going forward in their rebuild.
Also, I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to see what a Nylander – Matthews – Marner line could do.
But all of this is just speculation. It’s fun, imagining where Auston freaking Matthews is going to fit into the Leafs lineup. But, quite frankly, it’s June 24th. Free agency hasn’t even begun yet. The season opener is still months away. Auston Matthews will start in the NHL, for sure. But I’ll take line combinations, and position speculation with a grain of salt until game day.
I’m a cynic like that.