The Toronto Maple Leafs will hope to extend their winning streak to six games against the Detroit Red Wings at Scotiabank Arena and will have William Nylander in the lineup less than a week after the winger signed a six-year contract extension.
Change seems to be the trend for the Leafs in their final home game before five straight on the road, as head coach Mike Babcock is shaking up three of his four lines with the addition of Nylander and is starting backup Garret Sparks in a non back-to-back situation for the first time with Frederik Andersen healthy and available.
Nylander resumed his normal spot on the right wing of Auston Matthews with veteran Patrick Marleau and was inserted on the second power play unit.
“(William) has to keeps his shifts short, he’s got to be detailed and work. Everything else is a bonus. It’s got to take him some time (to catch up), no question about it, we understand that. If it’s not working, we got lots of guys to move around and go with different options, but that’s where we’d like him to start.” Babcock said after the club’s morning skate. “We expect to have energy tonight, he should be the freshest guy in hockey.”
The only line that will remain unchanged is John Tavares between Zach Hyman and Mitch Marner. Kasperi Kapanen moves down to the third line to play with Nazem Kadri and Andreas Johnsson and Par Lindholm will center Tyler Ennis and Connor Brown, with Frederik Gauthier as the healthy scratch.
Sparks will make his first start since a 34-save shutout against Philadelphia on November 24.
Andersen has been heavily burdened in the month of November, facing 39 or more shots in seven of his last eight games. The start on one hand is an opportunity to give the Leafs starter three days off in advance of a key divisional game in Boston on Saturday and also as a test for Sparks.
The 25-year-old has put up impressive numbers (4-1-0, 2.57 GAA, .924 save percentage), but he was subpar in two of his five starts (a 7-6 win in Chicago and a 5-1 loss to the Bruins last month). It is still unknown how much confidence Babcock has in his backup, but based on the workload that Andersen handles on a regular basis, he has to find out whether Sparks can be depended on for additional work in the second half to give the starter some much needed time off.
With Nylander squared away, the Leafs are likely turning their attention towards other contract situations. GM Kyle Dubas is expected to keep negotiating with Matthews and Marner’s representatives during the season on new contracts, but all indications are that the restricted free agents will not sign until after the season.
Dubas has also touched base with agent Pat Brisson on pending UFA defenseman Jake Gardiner on a new deal. With the blueline an area in need of upgrade, Toronto would like to keep the 28-year-old in the fold, but the cost and term of a new contract could the factors that eventually lead to his departure.
Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos said on FAN 590 on Thursday that the Leafs would like Gardiner back, but not at a hefty price or even at market value, but around the $4.025 Million salary he currently earns.
This seems like an unlikely scenario, since Gardiner put up a career-high 52 points last season and is on pace for his third straight 40+ point campaign, which would likely earn his in the $6.5-to-7 Million per season range.
It is not impossible that the Leafs are attempting to pull on Gardiner’s heartstrings in hopes that he buys into the Brendan Shanahan edict of taking a bit less to keep the club together, but if he is unwilling to do that, will Dubas deal Gardiner for what should be a significant return at the deadline or repeat the mistake that predecessor Lou Lamoriello made by not dealing Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk as rentals at the deadline???
The difference is that the Leafs are a serious Stanley Cup contender this season and were not last year. Retaining Bozak and JVR as own-rentals made little sense since they could have reaped significant assets by dealing both and still had a chance to beat Boston or Tampa Bay in the playoffs.
The only way that Gardiner will be moved is if he is dealt for his own replacement or for a package of young prospects/draft picks that could be flipped for another defenseman.
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