TORONTO — In terms of early-career milestones, it won’t appear as meaningful as making your NHL debut or scoring your first NHL goal.
But for William Nylander it is arguably more significant.
Should the Toronto Maple Leafs allow the rookie centre to play two more games this week, the clock will start ticking on his entry-level contract. That means he’ll become a restricted free agent in July 2018 — a date the agents of high-end players circle in red on their calendars because it signals the time that their clients can generally start earning bigger dollars.
The Leafs have not declared their plans for Nylander, at least not publicly. But everything about the way they’ve approached development this season suggests he’ll play his ninth NHL game against Tampa Bay on Tuesday, his 10th against Florida on Thursday and remain with the big team beyond that.
One thing the management group has been adamant about is not having prospects pinball back and forth between the NHL and American Hockey League — at least in situations where it’s avoidable — and general manager Lou Lamoriello is on record as saying that he sees a lot of value in giving younger players experience with the Leafs now.
There would be a calculated risk in triggering the start of Nylander’s contract this week, especially since it is eligible to slide to next October if he doesn’t appear in at least 10 games with the Leafs this season.
Essentially, the team would be working under the assumption he’ll end up with a more modest second contract in 2018 than he would if given another year of experience and an entry-level deal expiring in 2019.
Also worth considering is that starting the clock now gives the player less time to compile stats and establish comparables for the next negotiation and ensures that Nylander won’t trigger any performance bonuses in Year 1 of the current deal, which is very unlikely to be repeated if he spends all of next season in the NHL. Added up, those positives likely outweigh the negatives that come with having a player exit entry-level a year early.
It’s also important to note that Nylander won’t be eligible for unrestricted free agency until age 27 because he isn’t able to spend enough time on the Leafs roster this year to get credit for an accrued season.
While it might seem premature to worry about such deadlines, they are essential for a rebuilding team to consider. The Leafs hope to see a number of their young prospects like Nylander develop into impact players, but will eventually have trouble squeezing them all under the salary cap if that happens. Just look at how much roster juggling the Chicago Blackhawks have had to do the last six or seven seasons.
Nylander has scored two goals in seven NHL games since being called up on Feb. 29. If his adjustment to the NHL has appeared more steep than fellow rookie forwards Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov, it’s largely due to the fact he’s making it at centre rather than on the wing (he’s also a couple years younger).
The Leafs would much rather be easing the 19-year-old in as a winger, but don’t currently have that option with Tyler Bozak (upper body) and Byron Froese (broken hand) out injured.
“I don’t have any centres so it’s real simple,” coach Mike Babcock said over the weekend. “But I mean he’s been fine. … You’ve got to be better without (the puck at centre), and so he’s a work in progress in that area.
“You see it all over the league — there’s guys that are really good players now that started on the wing, or had a tough time playing down the middle at the start.”
It was clear the coach was reluctant to use Nylander during high-danger moments of Sunday’s 1-0 victory in Detroit, with the player nailed to the bench for nearly eight minutes during one stretch of the third period and given a season-low 13:06 of ice time overall.
That stood in stark contrast to Dylan Larkin, a fellow 2014 draft pick taken seven spots behind Nylander at No. 15, who was a major force for Detroit all night. Of course, Larkin has a lot more insulation on an experienced Red Wings team.
“He’s playing with a good veteran in (Henrik) Zetterberg,” Babcock said of Larkin. “I can’t emphasize how important that is, when you’ve got a guy to help take the weight off you. He’s a centre who’s playing the wing, which is a great way to start in the league because you’re looked after.”
No matter the contract permutations involved, all that Nylander is worried about right now is remaining in the NHL. He’ll be happy to see the 10th game come and go because it likely means he’ll stay with the Leafs through the end of the regular season before returning to the Marlies for the Calder Cup playoffs.
While there have been some ups and downs over his first couple weeks in the NHL, he’s tried to soak in as much as possible.
“You’re learning every day from some mistakes,” said Nylander. “You’re just trying to get adjusted to the game here,” he added. “I mean it’s played a little differently.”
That learning period can stretch another 14 games if the Leafs are willing to burn the first year of his contract.
Above all, that’s the reason they probably will.