LAS VEGAS — It’s hard to argue that there has been a more polarizing forward on the Toronto Maple Leafs over the last few years than William Nylander.
There’s never been any doubt about his skill. With the exception of the 2018-19 season when he missed the first couple of months due to contract negotiations and managed just 27 points in 54 games, the Swedish star has generally been consistent on the scoresheet.
But at times there have been defensive lapses in his game. One notable incident occurred in February when Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe benched Nylander for the final 8:45 of the third period in a 5-3 win against the Montreal Canadiens.
With the game on the line, Keefe didn’t feel Nylander matched the level of others in a situation.
This season, there really hasn’t been any of that with Nylander. Perhaps some of that is due to Keefe finding ways to keep his star forward engaged in the game.
It began when Nylander joined team meetings as a penalty killer during training camp in September. He wouldn’t see many touches in those situations at the beginning of the regular season. But as the year moved along and other penalty killers were either hurt or unavailable due to COVID-19 protocol, Keefe’s reliance of Nylander in that role increased.
The Leafs successfully killed off all four Colorado Avalanche power plays in their 5-4 overtime loss on Saturday in Denver. Nylander was on the ice for 1:43 in those situations and helped his team’s penalty kill improve to 83.7 percent, good enough to put the club in a tie for fifth in the NHL through games completed on Saturday.
“It obviously shows that he has belief in that area of the game when we’re bearing down to not get scored on,” Nylander said. “It means a lot and that’s an area of my game where I’ve been wanting to play at. I just have to keep that up.”
None of the time spent in those defensive situations have taken away the forward’s ability to produce offensively. Nylander has 15 goals and 20 assists through 33 games and his 1.06 points-per-game pace would put him on track to eclipse his previous high of 61 points in the season by his 58th game.
“He’s just become much more well-rounded offensively (and) defensively,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said of Nylander. “He’s a very competitive guy and I think very underrated with how strong he is on the puck.”
During the second period against the Avalanche, Nylander had a partial break to the net after receiving an outlet pass. Although Colorado’s Samuel Girard got a last-minute shove on Nylander, preventing him from a good chance at the net, Nylander managed to stop hard enough from making contact with Colorado goaltender Pavel Francouz. It wasn’t shown on the broadcast, but Nylander actually managed to get that puck to a trailing teammate on the blue line who shot the puck wide.
His ability to turn nothing into something is what gets fans of Nylander excited about his game. And while the “often misunderstood” Nylander (as former teammate Zach Hyman described him) has critics wondering if he cares about winning, they need to look no further than the 2021 NHL Playoffs.
Although the Maple Leafs had an epic series collapse in the first round against the Canadiens, Nylander had his best playoffs yet, leading his team in both goals (5) and points (8).
When the Leafs got off to a slow a 2-4-1 start to this season and the team trailed 2-0 after the opening period to a then winless Chicago Blackhawks, it was Nylander who candidly shared what was said in the room to turn that game (and ultimately their season) around.
“Time to wake up. Like, stop feeling sorry for ourselves,” Nylander said in October. “Nobody’s going to get us out of this, it’s only the guys in the locker room; That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this. So start.”
It was Nylander at his most raw. He doesn’t typically show a lot of emotion in those situations, but detailing the frustration was eye-opening.
Now he’s been on a quest to become the most consistent version of himself. The ability to stay engaged in the game by playing in all facets of the game has helped.
“We’ve gotten more from him this season of that than previous, it’s obviously been huge for us,” Keefe said of Nylander. “He’s gotten into the game in more ways than just offense and with greater consistency. I think it could continue to get better in the second half.”
It’s been beaten to death about how this season is a make-or-break year for the core for the Maple Leafs. Management bet high on Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Tavares and Nylander sticking together. There is an added pressure to see all four of those players take a jump in their game from year-to-year.
For now, Nylander has answered the bell and should keep those who weigh heavily on the eye test pleased.
Of course, staying consistent over an 82-game season is where this will be tested. But as of right now, Nylander appears on his way to becoming the all-round player that both he and the team need him to be.
“Trying to get the consistency up has been a big factor for me this year,” Nylander said. “I want to keep building off that.”