William Nylander tops long list of slump-busting Maple Leafs

Mitch Marner and Tyler Bozak put up four points each as the Maple Leafs crushed the Hurricanes 8-1 to celebrate their 100th anniversary.

Leo scored, hasn’t scored in forever.
Mitchy scored, hasn’t scored in forever.
Willy scored, hasn’t scored in forever.
Carrick scored, hasn’t scored in forever.
Kapanen scored, wasn’t in the league.

—Mike Babcock

TORONTO – “DAAAAR-Ling!”

A devilish razz rang loud and often upon the visiting goaltender in the south side of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ barn Tuesday afternoon. For all eight of the goals the eight different Maple Leafs hung on poor Scott Darling en route to their 8-1 victory were scored at that end.

Four in the first, four in the third. And Toronto, who had temporarily misplaced its high-scoring, ways, rang in their next century with a bang.

For the first time in more than week, the Leafs were fun to watch.

A brutal, compact road schedule hasn’t helped. Nor has an injury to Auston Matthews, their best player. But when one star goes down, you wait for another to seize the spotlight.

All eyes, particularly, have been on Mitchell Marner and William Nylander and their lack of goals.

“You can just tell by the energy that goes in their body,” coach Mike Babcock said. “If you’re a goal scorer and you haven’t scored in a long time, it starts weighing on you. I don’t care what anyone says, you’re a young person, you can’t help it, you’ve got to look at [your phone]. You get used to getting beat on.”

As the Leafs celebrated their 100th birthday, Darling was the only one getting beat on, to the tune of a .778 save percentage.

Special teams were huge. A struggling Leafs power play went a perfect 3-for-3, and the only team to score on Carolina’s man advantage was Leo Komarov.

Marner’s four-point extravaganza will rightly dominate headlines, but consider the other Maple Leafs’ scoring droughts quenched in this matinee:

• Connor Carrick was inserted into the lineup for the first time since the last time Toronto played Carolina, back on Nov. 24. Babcock simply has more trust in fellow right-shot defenceman Roman Polak, who has assumed injured Nikita Zaitsev’s role of killing almost all the penalty minutes. After patiently sitting out 25 days as a healthy scratch—a streak that would’ve continued were Zaitsev healthy—Carrick scored the eighth and final goal of the afternoon. The Leafs are now 14-3-1 with Carrick in the lineup.

“Polie is always good,” Babcock said. “He’s just not – how can I say this right? – he’s not fun for some people to watch, but he’s great for the coach to watch.

“On the offensive blue line, [Carrick] does real good things and he did tonight.”

• Watch out, Mario Lemieux. Komarov has four goals four ways this season: power play, even strength, empty net, and now shorthanded. Despite ranking fourth among all Leafs forwards in ice time, the impending free agent had not put a puck past a goaltender in 21 games. Komarov, who has been taking heat lately for his lacklustre performance, opened the scoring when he sniped the Leafs first shorty of the season.

• Kasperi Kapanen shone in the Leafs’ post-season series last spring, but with Toronto so flush with skilled right wingers, the 21-year-old failed to make the cut out of camp and started his season with the Marlies, in part because he doesn’t need waivers to cab back-and-forth from the Ricoh Coliseum to the Air Canada Centre. Selected to fill in on the fourth line Tuesday over Josh Leivo, Kapanen’s third career regular-season NHL goal marked his second of the year.

But the most important player to snap a goal slump was William Nylander.

If there’s meaning to be found in the seventh goal in an 8-1 romp, it’s that maybe the Leafs’ temporary No. 1 centre can catch lightning.

Nylander was buzzing all day, but unlike Marner, he wasn’t getting rewarded. Unlike Marner, who leads the club in assists, Nylander needs to earn his cheque as a shooter more so than a passer.

“Willy, I don’t know how many shots he missed the net. He hit once I know because he scored, but he had lots of opportunity,” Babcock said.

A breakaway pass clipped off his stick. He clanked a crossbar. Seemingly every shot he’s been snapping has been a couple inches too left or right. Until a third-period rush.

After hitting twine just twice in his past 26 outings, the sophomore came gliding in from the right circle, slid on one knee for extra leverage and whistled one of his patented wristers high and clean over Darling’s left shoulder.

“He’s been skating really well,” winger Zach Hyman said. “When Willie gets moving through the neutral zone, he creates space for everybody.”

Nylander as an NHL centre is a work in progress. It began with him taking strong-side draws, winning 54 per cent of them, and has been accelerated with the mysterious injury to Matthews, who is traveling with the club to Columbus Wednesday.

“He wins a lot of face-offs,” said centre Tyler Bozak, the man whose position Nylander may ultimately take. “It’s a tough position, and it takes time, but I think he’s doing a really good job.”

Funny. Back in training camp, Matthews and Nylander looked like they would set the world afire. One reporter asked Babcock in October if the young duo might be of the Trottier-Bossy mold, Nylander obviously the sniper. The coach scoffed. Last he checked, those Hall of Famers had four Cups.

Nylander, 21, is now on pace for 12 goals and 50 points in his contract year, a step off the 22 and 61 he put up as a rookie. With Matthews out, Babcock put Nylander up between Patrick Marleau and Hyman to get him rolling.

“We think he has the skill to be a centre, to transport the puck, to make plays. The part that we haven’t seen is the ability to play without the puck in his own zone,” Babcock said. “I would bet you on every team, the majority of forwards were centres, probably eight of the 12. They come into the league and the best players on all the minor hockey league teams are often centres.

“They come up and they end up on the wing and it takes a few years to figure out the league and learn how to play hard and how to play without the puck so you don’t spend the whole time just standing there watching the merry-go-round.

“That’s part of the process for him. That’s why we’ve tried to give him more time to be prepared for that, and I’m not sure it’s even this year or even next year. We’ll see when it happens.”