A wild idea that could get both Michael Bunting and William Nylander going

Published April 13, 2022 at 8:43 PM
BY MIKE ARMENTI
It's no secret that the Leafs would like to get both Michael Bunting and William Nylander going before the postseason begins. The problem is, they're running out of runway with just 9 games remaining. Is there a simple solution to the problem? There just might be.

For Bunting, the issue is a simple one. He hasn't scored a goal in 17 games. Fortunately for him, he happens to play on a line with the best goal scorer on the planet, so he doesn't necessarily need to worry about pulling the trigger. Still, there's no doubt that the Buds want Bunting to get the monkey off of his back and to put one up in the goals column for his own confidence.

The 26-year-old has admitted that not scoring has been weighing on him a little bit, but as long as his line is producing, there's really not much to be concerned about - and it's not as if Bunting is not racking up assists in the process. The Calder Trophy candidate has registered 8 assists in his last 10 games and has 20 goals and 37 assists on the season. Not bad for $950K per season.

On William Nylander, there's no question that there's some frustration there on the part of Sheldon Keefe. After spending some time with Auston Matthews to start the season, Nylander dropped back down to the second line with John Tavares, where he has spent much of the year. However, Nylander has also found himself periodically skating with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall on the team's third line.


Earlier this season, we heard Keefe talk about Nylander being one of those players who likes to be challenged and who needs the occasional wake-up call. Winding up on the third line could certainly qualify as a wake-up call for a top six winger who earns nearly $7M per season.

The problem there is that when Nylander dries up and appears disengaged, it creates problems for Tavares as well. JT is not nearly as fleet-of-foot as William Nylander is and relies on Nylander to commit to playing on both sides of the puck. When the 25-year-old quits on plays, the whole line suffers.

Production is not Nylander's problem. The Calgary-born Swede has 10 points in his last 7 games and is near a point per game this season with 69 points in 72 games. Nylander's problem is two-way play.

As I said before, there may be a very simple solution to the problem. The Leafs should temporarily shift Michael Bunting down to play with Tavares and one of Kerfoot/Mikheyev and slot Nylander next to Matthews and Marner for a few games down the stretch.

In Marner and Matthews, Nylander will have two defensively responsible line mates who also play with good pace and a ton of skill. We know that there's synergy there from their work together on the power play, so why not try them at 5v5 as well? Maybe some of their better habits will rub off on Willy Styles.

As for the second line, Mikheyev, Bunting and Tavares are all feisty players who never quit. Tavares protects the puck very well down low and along the wall, and also has excellent hands in tight in front of the net. Mikheyev has BLAZING speed and can win puck races. He has also shown a lot more of a scoring touch this season and is very sound defensively. Bunting, well, he can either become the trigger man on that second line, or just wreak havoc in front of the net and bang in those greasy goals. Either way, you're giving him an excellent chance to get his scoring touch back. Tavares is also not setting any franchise records or trying to preserve a Rocket Richard Trophy lead, which should lead to a lot more shooting time for Bunting.

Honestly, I don't anticipate this happening, but it could be a good way to mix things up and try some new things ahead of the postseason, just in case injury strikes again. It never hurts to get some different looks and build a little bit of familiarity just in case.
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