In a three-part series let’s take a way too early look at the seemingly impossible task of finding Auston Matthews a forever home with suitable linemates.
From Patrick Marleau to William Nylander to Andreas Johnsson to Kasperi Kapanen. The Leafs have a lot of forward depth, but who deserves the left and right wing positions flanking the generational talent Auston Matthews?
Current Roster Options
Of the current Maple Leaf players listed above, I think we could all probably agree to rule out Marleau. He was a solid addition to the Matthews line to replace Hyman two season ago, but now his speed and ineffective play against top defensive opposition makes him a non-starter.
That leaves Johnsson, Kapanen, and Nylander as the next three obvious choices. In order to get the best out of Matthews, you need to maximize his efficiency by playing him with a balance of skill and grit (much like the Tavares line).
The solution? Nylander on the right wing and neither on the left wing. Realistically, I believe one of Kapanen and Johnsson will be gone come October 1st. A trade could alleviate cap space issues and/or help insulate a thin blue line; if I had to choose I’m shipping out Kapanen.
If Toronto could keep both Johnsson and Kapanen I’d be ecstatic, I just don’t see it happening. Now, one would assume Johnsson takes back his LW spot, right? Wrong-o! Johnsson exceeded expectations this season with Matthews, but properly casting him on the third line could increase his effectiveness, leaving the Leafs in need of another leftwinger.
Who fills the left wing?
If we have Nylander on the right wing, who slots into the left side? Ideally, Toronto dips into the admittedly shallow free agent market to find the fit for Matthews.
Of the left wing options on the market, one name shines above the rest – Michael Ferland. The rumored deadline acquisition from Carolina has played himself right into free agency. Ferland brings size and solid offensive production to a line with potentially two snipers alongside him making a formidable unit.
The only sticking point would be salary and term. Ferland has been a bargain at his 2-year $1.75m contract, and he’s due for a pay increase. Could the Leafs offer term in lieu of cash up front? It’s certainly an option and it would also allow for Ferland to be used up and down the line up. The farthest I’d commit is 4-years $2.5 a year.
Ferland – Matthews – Nylander
To me, this seems like a balanced and threatening second line that could out muster most teams’ first units. Matthews brings his elite shot and playmaking vision, Nylander beings his shot and speed, while Ferland adds net-front physicality and playmaking upside.
It could be argued that signing Ferland only makes it harder for Marlies’ prospects to break into the NHL, which is fair. However, walking into the NHL and playing alongside Auston Matthews would be a near-impossible task for a green prospect. A veteran NHLer eases this transition while maximizing return on Matthews current skill.