Leafs dominance masking Nylander’s under-the-radar struggles

Watch as Morgan Rielly makes a great pass right into Auston Matthews' wheel house and Matthews hammers home his second goal of the night.

TORONTO — Rewind the Toronto Maple Leafs’ most recent 120 minutes of gameplay and fans of the club can find much to celebrate during consecutive starting-goalie-chasing victories over banged-up cellar dwellers New Jersey and Florida.

The special teams rediscovered their groove, Morgan Rielly leads all defencemen in points, Frederik Andersen tops all goalies in wins, John Tavares is on target for a 54-goal season, Auston Matthews is sniping at an even more efficient rate, and Mitch Marner has more assists than anyone in the conference.

Yes, it’s difficult to find fault in a team that just hung a two-game combined score of 13-3 on its bewildered opponents.

But allow us to nitpick a little — even if it sounds like we’re complaining about Cindy Crawford’s mole or Jon Hamm’s crow’s feet or Santa’s cholesterol levels.

Somewhat lost in the Leafs’ blowouts this week is the fact that William Nylander was essentially a non-factor in a pair of games ripe for the Leafs’ most significant mid-season addition to gather some points and, more importantly, some confidence.

After skipping training camp and the first 28 games of the season, the 22-year-old with the (temporary) $10.28-million salary cap hit has mustered just a pair of assists and taken eight minutes in penalties. He’s failed to get on the scoreboard in six of his seven appearances, and if anything, his progress took a step back this week.

Despite skating on Toronto’s rather good third line, Nylander failed to register a shot in Thursday’s 6-1 party over the Panthers. His ice time fell from Tuesday’s light load of 13:09 to a season-low 11:37 — and it would be difficult to scream, “Unfair!”

While the other Leafs forwards buzzed and checked and dangled and picked corners, Nylander whiffed on a wide-open net — gifted to him by a Globetrotters-esque pass from Connor Brown. And during a prolonged first-period possession cycle by Toronto in the O-zone, Nylander bobbled the puck at the blue line and temporarily coughed up momentum.

“Willy, as you can tell, is a ways away,” said coach Mike Babcock post-game.

It’s telling that this was in response to a question that had nothing to do with Nylander, whom the coach is urging to be patient.

“You’re used to being magic. You’re used to havin’ pop. You’re used to being able to do things with the puck. You’re used to the puck goes in for you. And when you don’t, it starts wearing on you. It doesn’t matter who you are. So, you have to take a deep breath and understand the situation you’re in,” Babcock said earlier in the week.

The beautifully tricky thing about team sports is, winning masks all flaws.

So, Nylander’s teammates and the GM who recently agreed to pay him $45 million are all quick to spin positive.

Matthews — the partner we all assume Nylander will be reunited with once he’s done playing catchup with a league in full stride — says, yes, he’d love to rediscover his chemistry with his usual right winger but, hey, there’s so much skill in the room, it doesn’t really matter as long as the Ws pile up.

“It’s tough to get into game shape without playing games,” Matthews empathized. “You just don’t feel like yourself.”

Tavares speaks of Nylander’s “under-rated shot” and chalks up the Swede’s struggles to “a feeling-out process.”

Nylander’s current centreman, Nazem Kadri, watched Nylander get stoned by Roberto Luongo on a breakaway Saturday, and says, “It’s just a matter of one going in.”

Until winger Zach Hyman’s ankle sprain threw his lines in the blender, Babcock had purposely placed veteran Patrick Marleau to the left of Kadri and Nylander as an encouraging voice and defensive safety blanket.

“I haven’t played with him all that much, so we’ve been talking quite a bit about things we can do to help each other on the ice and build that chemistry,” Marleau said.

“He’s one of the best passers on the team and, I think, around the league. He sees the ice really well, and he has that same thing that Mitch does where he can manoeuvre the defender, so it opens up a lane to make those plays.”

Yet despite respectable underlying metrics, those plays have been scarce.

The kid is fighting it, and prior to Thursday’s win, he admitted to feeling “more fresher” his first couple games in December than he does now — a challenge he’s trying to overcome through extra skating sessions and consult with the club’s sports scientists, who have estimated a return to conditioning form around mid-January.

“I don’t look at it,” GM Kyle Dubas said. “I know that’s probably the right thing to do in media and if you’re scouting our team, would be to look at ‘How’s he doing? Where’s he going?’ But I tend not to do that with players who have proven themselves in exhibition, and that’s the way that I look at his play of late.

“I don’t worry about William whatsoever. He’s in excellent shape, excellent character person. He’s gonna end up being just great for us.”

There’s no reason to doubt that. But if you’re a 60-point star who fought to get paid like an 80-point star, it’s easier to be preached patience than to exercise it.

“They’re happy to have me back. Now they want me to start scoring goals,” Nylander said, smiling.

“I think I gotta be [patient], but at the same time you want to perform and stuff. I mean, it gets to the point where you’re gonna be mad. I want to get going.”

Babcock’s most pointed comments since Nylander’s return arrived Wednesday, when the player’s mental frustration was brought up.

“Well, there was a way to solve that, wasn’t there?” Babcock fired. “C’mon. What are you getting frustrated for? If you don’t come to training camp and you don’t start the year… I mean, there was business to get done, he got his business done.

“Now the business to be done is to get up and running. Getting frustrated with yourself or disappointed, or whatever word you want, is just a total waste of energy.”

With a top-six winger succumbing to injury and a back-to-back weekend against the Rangers and Red Wings, two clubs that rank among the bottom third in goals allowed, on deck, Nylander still has a chance to tuck that first one and start earning his keep before the Christmas break.

“Get excited. You’re playing in the National Hockey League. Get to work and fight your way back,” Babcock preached.

“Nobody’s surprised. Nobody. So, I’m not concerned about it. Dig in and get playing.”

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