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Leafs have plenty of questions as they head to Western Canada

From head coach Mike Babcock’s line-juggling to their opponents’ neutral-zone traps to the struggles of forward William Nylander, the Maple Leafs will have no shortage of questions as they head west this week for a three-game swing through Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver. Here are a few things to watch for:

  • No luck for Nylander: The 21-year-old winger has just one goal in 17 games, and saw fourth-line minutes in the final two periods of a 4-2 loss to Washington on Saturday. But Babcock also had him on the ice as the extra attacker in the final minutes of the game, when Toronto pulled goalie Curtis McElhinney.

The Leafs have to find the balance between dealing with Nylander’s fleeting confidence and recognizing his impact on a line with Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman. Matthews, for instance, had nine goals and seven assists in 12 October games but his production has dropped in November, with three goals and four assists in eight games. Babcock inserted Connor Brown on the line Saturday in favour of Nylander, and the trio scored on its first shift in the third period.

Babcock is masterful at reworking star players — Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly are good examples — though he might have a tougher assignment with the Swedish sophomore. But Nylander remains an excellent skater, playmaker and puck controller, and when he has been on the Matthews line it has ranked as one of the top three in the NHL in goals, possession, and dangerous scoring chances.

  • The right combinations: One reason the Leafs have been able to absorb Nylander’s slump has been the play of the Tyler Bozak line, with James van Riemsdyk and, as of Saturday again, Mitch Marner on the wings. Van Riemsdyk has carried the load offensively, with five goals over the past eight games.

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Marner, who spent the previous two games playing with Matthew, was arguably the most dangerous Leaf in the offensive zone after being reunited with his regular partners from last season.

Will that line remain intact on the road? It’s tough to say as Babcock likes to battle against line mismatches. And he went for a more-balanced approach on the road last week, moving Patrick Marleau to centre in an attempt to get scoring from all four lines.

  • Stuck in neutral: The latest example of the neutral-zone issue with the Leafs came in their loss to Washington. Toronto had 63 per cent of the puck possession in the first period and might have led after 20 minutes had it not been for Alex Ovechkin’s two goals and a hot goalie in Braden Holtby.

The Leafs finished with 60 per cent of the possession but managed just seven shots in the third period. Both teams were aggressive in clogging the neutral zone, which cut down on the scoring chances (six dangerous chances for the Leafs, five for Washington).

The trap is likely to become a fact of life for the Leafs with teams recognizing the effect it has on on Toronto’s game.

  • Beefing up the blue line: Veteran defenceman Roman Polak was back in the lineup Saturday, playing just his sixth game, and he earned praise from his coach.

“I liked him,” Babcock said after inserting Polak for Connor Carrick. “Big, heavy, he was good. Polie is what he is, he gives you an honest effort and I thought (Polak and Andreas Borgman) was a good pair for us.”

Polak may see more starts if Babcock feels he needs a more physical presence from his third pairing. Carrick also has a physical side to his game and is a favourite of analytics experts because of his possession stats.

Toronto has shown improved play in its own zone over the past five games, yet it remains 30th in the NHL in shots against (639).