ST. PAUL — It was as though Mike Babcock was summing up the past three months as it pertained to the absent William Nylander.
“Same as yesterday,” he said. “What did I say yesterday?”
Exactly. But then, Babcock did offer a little tidbit, perhaps the first thing to qualify as ‘news’ on this subject in weeks. He revealed that he had spoken to the young forward on the telephone since the season started. He wouldn’t say when. He certainly wouldn’t say what was discussed.
But when asked if he was just looking forward to knowing one way or another whether he’d have Nylander on his bench this season by 5 p.m. Saturday, Babcock gave a pretty passionate answer.
“In my heart and in my mind, I think he’s going to be on this team,” he said Friday. “That’s how I’ve got to think.”
Take that for what you will, but knowing that the Maple Leaf coach had spoken to Nylander suggests he might know something, might have some true sense of what the 22-year-old Swede might be thinking. No one else seems to.
Or maybe it was just Babcock and that infernal sense of positivity he brings to the table every day. Maybe it was just a coach saying he wants another highly skilled, low maintenance athlete on his bench, and was sending a nudge to management.
We’ll all know Saturday afternoon which of the three options — Leafs sign Nylander, Leafs trade Nylander, Nylander doesn’t play in the NHL this season — ends up being the deadline decision. That said, it sure seems logical there are really only two options — that he signs with the Leafs or is moved for other assets to another NHL team.
That the deadline would come and go without one of those two things happening would, of course, mean a massive loss of income for Nylander, but it would also be an extraordinary failure on the part of the Leafs front office led by Kyle Dubas, who accompanied the team to Minnesota on Friday but otherwise wasn’t seen, at least by members of the media.
Let’s be clear: the Leafs are clearly a Stanley Cup contender. All the elements are there. And a Stanley Cup contender simply cannot afford to have a prime asset sitting around doing nothing unless that asset is injured and unable to play. That would essentially be like the Leafs deliberately playing shorthanded the rest of the season, which would be an insult to all of the team’s thousands and thousands of followers, many of whom have been waiting decades for the team to have a legitimate shot at the Cup.
Since the team last won it all in 1967, it has come close once — once! — to at least getting back to the Cup final and competing for the trophy. That was in 1993, the spring the Leafs had a dream matchup with Montreal in the final ripped from their hands in the seventh and deciding game by Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings.
The other 49 seasons? Not close, or at least, not that close. Now, with a squad that has at times looked like the class of the NHL despite playing without Nylander and, for much of the season, without star centre Auston Matthews, a team with the league’s third-best offence and third-best defence, it seems utterly absurd that MLSE’s hockey department wouldn’t take its best shot at the Cup.
And that means either having Nylander, or having something to show for him.
As they have all season, Leaf players tried on Friday to play down the fact a decision is at hand.
“I don’t know if you guys think we’re tracking your tweets, but we’re not,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly. “He’s a good player. What else can I say?
“At this point, there’s nothing we can do. If he signs, he signs. If not, we move on.”
That said, just like a contending team at the winter trade deadline often gets the message that management believes it can win when the team adds a quality player, so too must the rest of the Leafs roster be hoping that the team gets an injection of talent this weekend, either with the teammate they already know or with talent from another team.
“We’re not begging anyone to be a Leaf,” said Babcock. “But (Nylander) gives us more depth. The more depth you have, the better chance you have.”
On Friday, the Leafs landed at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in the early afternoon, went straight to the Xcel Energy Centre to get changed and then played a fun three-on-three tournament on an outdoor rink adjacent to the team’s hotel in downtown St. Paul. Only Nazem Kadri and Ron Hainsey didn’t participate, players munched on pretzels and sausages between shifts and Team White — whoever that was — carried the day.
“(Mitch) Marner, self-proclaimed,” chirped defenceman Travis Dermott when asked who captured MVP honours. “But I’m gonna give it to (Igor) Ozhiganov.”
The game, which featured lots of hoots and hollers, was hosted by Minnesota boys Jake Gardiner and Justin Holl, and members of both families were on hand for the light-hearted workout.
“When you have a good team, and I learned this when I was with the Red Wings, you can do whatever you want when it comes to team-building because nobody asks any questions,” said Babcock. “If you’re not winning, well, then it’s, ‘Why aren’t you working on the power play?’
“But team-building stuff is the best way to infuse enthusiasm in your team.”
At 18-8 to start the season, the Leafs don’t seem to have a great deal of problem generating the necessary enthusiasm most nights.
“It’s just fun to be here with this team. There’s all this youthful energy and excitement,” said 29-year-old Tyler Ennis, who will play Saturday night against the Wild team that dumped him after one disappointing eight-goal season last year.
“I just like the way Toronto plays. Fast-paced, and with speed. I know my confidence is growing.”
Ennis will get to play against his other former team, the Buffalo Sabres, next week, and then Babcock coaches against Detroit again two nights later. After that, it’s another Saturday-night date in Boston with the Bruins.
All in all, it’s the kind of week in the opening days of December you’d want to be part of a very good Leaf team, or part of any good team with hockey season fully on, and Babcock sure seemed to be hoping against hope on Friday that Nylander feels that and will be part of that — part of this fast-skating, imaginative contending team filled with his friends.
Maybe he knows something, maybe he doesn’t. We’ll all find out Saturday.