February 26, 2015
TORONTO— Gord Dineen has been shuffling and adjusting his lines on a nightly basis with the Toronto Marlies.
Except for one.
Player call-ups, injuries, additions to the roster and the hunt for chemistry has forced Dineen to trial-and-error various trios for almost every game this season. But he’s found what he’s looking for with the all-rookie line of William Nylander, Ryan Rupert and Connor Brown.
“That line’s been our best line for a good month, on a consistent basis,” said Dineen. “They’ve got chemistry… We like those three as a unit right now.”
On Wednesday each player found the back of net and Brown assisted on both of his linemates’ goals as the Marlies beat the Charlotte Checkers 4-1.
In nine games together, with Nylander and Brown on the wings and Rupert at centre, the three prospects have combined for nine goals and 24 points while playing even strength.
“(Ryan’s) a real competitor, he’s another guy who sees the ice real well offensively,” Dineen said about Rupert, who started the season much further down the prospect depth chart than either of his more-hyped linemates.
Prior to February it wasn’t even expected the three would be on the same team, nevermind on the same line.
While Brown started the year with the Marlies, Rupert opened the campaign in the ECHL with the Orlando Solar Bears and wasn’t summoned until late-November. And Nylander skated with Modo in his native Sweden right up until mid-January.
When 18-year-old Nylander first joined Toronto, he skated with Greg McKegg and Matt Frattin, or Brandon Kozun, while Rupert and Brown were already paired with winger Josh Leivo.
The three were put together for the first time against the Lake Erie Monsters on Feb. 6. Dineen was unsure of what he would get from them considering they all share similar characteristics, although Rupert offers the line some “grit”, but the move had a reason to it and seems to be a benefit to all three.
“Part of why we put Brownie and Rupert together, I think they both had times when they were deferring to older guys, moving it to them or letting them carry the puck,” said Dineen. “Maybe there’s a little bit more of a comfort level with the three of them where they can hold pucks more, read off of each other.”
The Nylander-Rupert-Brown line has been best at even strength but, like the rest of the lineup, hasn’t been able to spark a struggling power play.
Toronto has scored a league-low 22 goals with the man advantage and Brown has been in on 13 of those. In the past nine games Toronto has been a woeful 3 for 31 and it’s the three rookies who account for those goals.
“It’s frustrating, especially being on it, being a power-play guy,” said Brown. “At this point it’s just simplifying and getting pucks to the net. Putting home rebounds and stuff like that. We need to get back to a shoot-first mentality.”
“Playing with Brownie and Rupert, those guys seem like pass-first guys too so we need to get one of the three shooting, (but) that goes for our entire group,” said Dineen.
Brown and Rupert, both born in 1994, were selected by Toronto in the 2012 NHL Draft— with Brown being chosen 156th and Rupert just one spot below. The Maple Leafs went with Nylander with the eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft.
Brown currently leads the Marlies in scoring with 16 goals and 44 points in 53 games, which is also good for second in AHL rookie scoring. Rupert has produced 10 goals and 20 points in 35 games with Toronto after putting up close to a point-per game in the ECHL. And Nylander has three goals and nine points in 14 games with the Marlies.