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Kapanen, Maple Leafs starting to feel weight of Nylander’s absence

TORONTO — Kasperi Kapanen is waiting, and wondering, and worrying.

Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine William Nylander and the Toronto Maple Leafs would get this close to the NHL’s deadline for signing Group 2 free agents and not have a new deal done.

"To be honest, I don’t know what to think," Kapanen said Thursday. "It felt like the other day he had two weeks left and now he has two days. Time flies."

Nylander must have a new contract signed and filed to the league by 5 p.m. ET on Saturday in order to be eligible to play this season.

There’s a rising tension to the negotiations, but there’s also an emotional impact for those on the sidelines with a stake in the outcome. Kapanen is at the top of that list. He lived with Nylander the last two years, calls him a "brother" and says his breakout season with the Leafs hasn’t been quite as enjoyable as it could be without his buddy around to share it with.

"I’m not going to lie: I’ve had a couple dreams where he’s signed in my sleep and I wake up and it’s just a big disappointment," said Kapanen. "I texted him and let him know about that and we had a good laugh.

"Obviously, it would be nice to just have him here."

The Leafs have fared incredibly well without him, going 18-8-0 to start the season thanks in part to Kapanen’s ability to jump into his old spot beside Auston Matthews and make high-end offensive plays.

It is only at this 11th hour where the weight of the situation is finally being felt by the team, which doesn’t play again until Saturday night in Minnesota — after Nylander’s signing deadline has come and gone.

"The clock’s kind of ticking," said Matthews. "You know he wants to be here, he wants to play hockey, that’s the main thing. All of us really hope it gets resolved so we don’t get asked this every single day in the media and we can just go out and focus on the things that obviously help this team. But he’s a big part of this team."

Mike Babcock has chosen to project an air of optimism around the Nylander situation every day for the last week, occasionally even referencing him during media sessions without being asked.

The Leafs coach is making no secret of his desire to get the 22-year-old winger back in his lineup. He even seemed to indicate he’d play him immediately after returning to Toronto despite the fact Nylander hasn’t been in a competitive environment since Game 7 in Boston on April 25.

Logic dictates that something will happen before Saturday. No one in Nylander’s position has elected to sit out an entire season since Dec. 1 was established as the signing deadline. The Leafs are also highly motivated to bring him back as they try to load up for a run at the Stanley Cup this season.

"(GM Kyle Dubas) and I talk about this every day so I’m up to date on what’s going on," said Babcock. "There’s lots of opinion out there, let’s not confuse opinion and facts. We think Willy’s gonna be here and we think Willy’s gonna be here for a long time. We think he’s going to be a career Leaf.

"That’s what we think."

Perhaps those words will be of some comfort to Kapanen, who was clearly fretting about the possibility something goes awry.

He goes so far back with Nylander that they were rivals before becoming best friends and teammates in Toronto. They faced each other in various national team events while growing up, with Finland once losing 10-0 to Sweden on home ice in the quarterfinals of the 2014 under-18 world championship.

Nylander had two goals and two assists in that game. Kapanen hasn’t forgotten.

"At the time, I felt we were the best on each team," he said. "Personally for me I felt like if I tried to kind of be physical and get under his skin and tried to kind of get him off his game [it would work]. Willy, obviously, he wouldn’t come after me, but he just played well and that pissed me off.

"We never really said much to each other, but I think it was just a good rivalry."

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They had a lot in common as the sons of European NHLers who were raised predominantly in North America. They were both highly ranked prospects in the 2014 draft – the Leafs took Nylander eighth, the Penguins took Kapanen 22nd – and got to spend some time together in the run-up to that event.

But it wasn’t until Kapanen arrived in Toronto as part of the Phil Kessel trade in July 2015 that their bromance flourished.

"Once I got traded, we started hanging out," said Kapanen. "That’s that."

Nylander has remained home in Sweden while contract negotiations stretched over several months, skating with AIK’s under-20 team in Stockholm two to three times per week for the last 12 weeks. He also practised with an Austrian-based team a couple times and has been doing skills work with Jocke Ahlgren.

Kapanen, meanwhile, has moved out on his own in Toronto and performed extremely well in a larger role with the Leafs, scoring 10 goals and 18 points in 26 games.

This should be the best time of his life, but something is missing.

"I used to hang out with the guy every day," said Kapanen. "Just kind of my daily routine revolved around him and doing stuff together, and obviously sometimes I’ll have days where I’m not doing much and I’d love to hang out and just talk and have a buddy to be there for me.

"I’m sure they’re figuring it out right now. It’s going to be close.

"We’ll see."