Maple Leafs' depth concerns on full display. Could William Nylander be the solution?

Before the season the Maple Leafs were concerned about what their bottom six could give them offensively. So far, those concerns have been justified.

Just four games into their season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are dealing with a familiar depth scoring issue.

Of the 14 goals the team has produced so far, 11 of them have come from the quartet of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Another was a power-play marker from Tyler Bertuzzi, who generally plays on the first line.

The Maple Leafs' third and fourth lines, however they've been arranged, have provided a negligible offensive threat so far.

William Nylander could be the remedy to the Maple Leafs' depth scoring woes. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
William Nylander could be the remedy to the Maple Leafs' depth scoring woes. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

That can be partially explained by the unavoidable lack of investment in that component of the team. The Maple Leafs' top forwards eat up a massive percentage of the salary cap. If Toronto is going to have any established blueliners the team needs to cut corners somewhere. This squad was never going to be able to fill its bottom six with a host of skilled veterans in their prime.

While expectations were never going to be set particularly high, there's no doubt the players in place have underperformed. Max Domi has struggled to find his way, Fraser Minten has been quiet after breaking through with a strong preseason and Matthew Knies has threatened at times but has nothing to show for it. Calle Järnkrok has moved up and down the lineup constantly, and remains a complementary piece wherever he goes.

The fourth line of David Kämpf, Ryan Reaves and Noah Gregor has produced a goal — with Järnkrok in for Reaves — but that group features a centre who's scored 0.09 goals per game in his career, a 36-year-old enforcer and a guy who joined the team on a PTO. Expecting offence from that group would take a level of optimism bordering on delusion.

It's clear there are some structural issues here, but there are also some mitigating factors worth considering.

Domi has been a lightning rod, for instance, but he hasn't had a genuine opportunity to settle in. The 28-year-old is playing 12:49 per night, and he hasn't topped 10 minutes of 5v5 time with any single line.

Because of head coach Sheldon Keefe's constant shuffling, the most common third line at 5v5 — Knies-Minten-Järnkrok — has only appeared in half of the team's games, and played 13:52 together.

There's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation going on with the coach. Nothing seems to be clicking so he keep switching things up, but it'll be tough for any third line to find its footing if it isn't given sufficient time to gel.

Part of what's driven that phenomenon has been the game situations the Maple Leafs have found themselves in. Toronto has been scored on first in all of its games. The team has spent 96:39 trailing and just 52:35 leading — 47:25 of which came in a single contest against the Minnesota Wild.

With the Maple Leafs consistently chasing, they've felt the need to give higher workloads to their top players. Keefe has been somewhat cautious with Tavares, allowing the centre to skate a reasonable 18:38 per night, but Marner (23:41), Matthews (23:32) and Nylander (20:12) have all been stapled to the ice.

Not only has that allowed the depth forwards fewer minutes on the ice, it's also cut into their offensive opportunities.

Domi, for instance has a 36.7% offensive-zone start rate, the lowest number on the team. Minten is at a similar 39.1%. When the Maple Leafs are on the attack, they've felt the need to put their top guns out there — or, failing that, throw out the fourth line to shelter it from difficult defensive assignments — making it tougher for depth scorers to establish themselves.

If Toronto can get some leads it will have the luxury of giving offensive-zone chances to its bottom-six, and play them more overall. That should improve their production.

Even so, there's still room for concern.

Circumstances have conspired against the Maple Leafs' depth forwards, but their lack of production can't solely be chalked up to that. This group should do better, but its ceiling is still up for debate, which is why the team floated the Nylander-at-centre concept in the preseason.

The team's worries about being too top-heavy have been validated so far, and it will be interesting to see if the Maple Leafs revisit the idea of Nylander pivoting a third line if Minten is returned to the WHL before he burns a year of his entry-level contract — an outcome that's looking all but guaranteed at the moment.

With that alignment the Maple Leafs could put out a lineup that looks relatively similar to its current one, with Nylander being the main change:

Bertuzzi - Matthews - Marner

Knies - Tavares - Järnkrok

Domi - Nylander - AHL callup (presumably Nick Robertson; Bobby McMann could fit too)

Gregor - Kämpf - Reaves

Or, Toronto could try to ensure the Tavares line continue to have juice by switching Marner and Järnkrok. Elevating Gregor instead of the Minten replacement is also an option. Whichever way you slice it, that would be a more balanced look. Not a flawless one by any means, but an interesting premise.

None of this has to be an immediate consideration for the Maple Leafs. Bertuzzi's health is a more pressing issue and giving Minten additional rope would be justifiable. Despite the hand-wringing going on, a 2-2-0 start is far from apocalyptic.

It's just apparent the the fears Toronto had about its scoring distribution are reasonable — and the solution the team proposed before the season got started remains a potential remedy.