EDMONTON – Michael Nylander told his son to stick with it.
Watching the Toronto Maple Leafs from a continent away, the former NHLer saw signs that William was about to emerge from the desert. “You’ll get out of it,” he urged his boy, who was dropped to the fourth line and saw a career-low in ice time during Tuesday’s game in Calgary.
Nylander didn’t play much more against the Edmonton Oilers, but he made the most of his 11:12 on Thursday night – delivering a goal and two assists in a wild 6-4 victory.
His stay on the fourth line with Matt Martin and Dominic Moore shouldn’t be long. In fact, it should probably be over by the time the puck drops Saturday in Vancouver. The 21-year-old has endured some tough love here, but suddenly has six points to show for his last four games.
“It was only a matter of time for him,” said teammate Nazem Kadri. “He’s got all the skill in the world. He wants to be good, he works hard and I think as a young guy it’s just … handling those slumps can be difficult at times.
“But with his skill the puck’s going to go in the net, and with that shot – great shot. Great screens. All around great plays.”
There was unmistakeable solace on his face when he beat Laurent Brossoit bar-down late in the second period. That gave the Leafs a 4-3 lead after they’d been dominated in the frame and frittered away a 3-1 advantage.
It was just Nylander’s second goal in the last 19 games and he smiled while banging the glass in unison with the mob of Leafs fans at Rogers Place.
“Probably a little relief, for sure,” he said. “It’s always nice to score.”
An underrated aspect of Toronto’s 17-9-1 start is the fact Nylander and Mitch Marner have both struggled at times to build on their impressive rookie campaigns. The team is now one point behind Tampa Bay for first place in the Atlantic Division and doesn’t yet have everyone hitting full stride.
The first two months of the season have seen Nylander, Marner and Connor Brown all spend time playing right wing on the fourth line. It’s a far cry from last year, when they were each firmly entrenched in the top-nine and experienced very little line juggling.
“Everyone got to play 16 minutes whether they played good or not – they were kids; they were trying to get involved in the league – and that’s what we did,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “But, you know, on all the good teams you coach we’ve had players all over and you do what you’ve got to do to win that night.
“So whoever’s playing good gets to play.”
In a game featuring Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, we got a reminder from Nylander that there are other skilled young players worth the price of admission. The game wasn’t even three minutes old before he found Matthews with a cross-ice pass on the power play.
He then forced a turnover in the offensive zone and triggered one of the nicer fourth-line goals you’re bound to see. It went Nylander to Moore to Martin and Toronto had a 3-1 lead after just 13 minutes.
We should all hope to “struggle” like the silky Swede.
He lost the coveted spot beside Matthews and still sits at 20 points after 27 games – putting him on pace to match the 61 he registered as a rookie. He’s trending upwards, too.
“So if you look at it today, he’s going to have more points than he had last year,” said Babcock. “I don’t know what it’s all about. Just play hard and work hard and you’re a really talented player. The league is really hard. Your first year no one knows who you are and after that they know who you are. If you want to be a star, you’ve got to dig in and become an everydayer.
“It’s a hard league and it’s supposed to be a hard league. The best league in the world is supposed to be hard, and if you want to be a guy who becomes a star, it’s about heart and soul and digging in and getting better.”
There have been signs of that during this swing through Alberta despite the severely curtailed minutes.
Nylander admits that he’s struggled with his confidence at times and grown frustrated when the offence dried up. It doesn’t hurt that he has people to lean on – both here with the team and back home, where his father watches games as often as possible.
Now the points are coming and so are the victories.
Surely, the minutes are soon to follow.