TORONTO — There was a whiff of urgency in the stands, if not on the ice.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were upbeat and playful during a long Tuesday afternoon practice, but members of the front office had other things on their minds. General manager Kyle Dubas seemed to be in good spirits, too — chiding a couple reporters for their Twitter usage — before huddling with president Brendan Shanahan and going over something on his cellphone.
Assistant GMs Brandon Pridham and Laurence Gilman were also in attendance, alternatively watching practice or making calls or pacing around the team’s suburban facility.
We know now that the Leafs braintrust was setting the wheels in motion on a new round of contract talks with William Nylander. Dubas travelled to Zurich for a Wednesday meeting with Nylander’s camp — a Swiss rendezvous first reported by veteran Toronto Sun scribe Lance Hornby — in a bid to end a stalemate that has kept the winger away from the team during a promising 6-1-0 start to the season.
No specifics are known about who initiated the face-to-face meeting or why it was held in Switzerland. Nylander has been training at home in Stockholm and was first linked to the Zurich Airport by a sharp-eared Twitter user. There was a direct Air Canada flight from Toronto that landed at 7:50 a.m. local time in Zurich on Wednesday.
(Messages to Dubas and others believed to have first-hand knowledge of the meeting were not immediately returned.)
Given the lack of progress in talks, it’s likely that the Leafs are trying to push forward towards a resolution. The sides were largely focused on reaching a long-term deal throughout the summer and into September, but the team has since given Nylander’s camp a range of potential options that include short-term contracts, per sources.
However, it’s believed that a significant gap remained in the money being discussed for each of those options ahead of Wednesday’s face-to-face meeting.
Nylander is a core piece of a team that’s gone from a 30th-place finisher to a Stanley Cup hopeful inside three years. He is coming off consecutive 61-point seasons and harbours concerns that he’ll become a likely trade candidate after signing a new deal because of an impending cap crunch and Toronto’s elite scoring depth, not to mention its need for a right-shot defenceman.
It’s made him less inclined to give the team anything resembling a hometown discount since the only thing he can get back from the Leafs is a promise he won’t be dealt — NHL rules dictate that Nylander can’t receive any no-trade protection for the first five seasons of his next contract.
Perhaps that’s one area where Dubas can give the player more comfort while speaking to him directly.
This is the first big test for the 32-year-old GM, who signed John Tavares to a mammoth free-agent deal seven weeks after being promoted to the position but now needs to get Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner inked to extensions by the start of next season while keeping his team under the salary cap ceiling.
The Leafs haven’t missed a beat despite Nylander’s absence throughout training camp and the first 13 days of this season. They lead the NHL with 4.71 goals per game and have seen Kasperi Kapanen, Nylander’s former roommate and best friend, light it up in his spot alongside Matthews and Patrick Marleau.
Following Tuesday’s practice, the Finn brushed off questions about potentially hurting his buddy’s bargaining position by putting up eight points in five games with Matthews.
“I’m not trying to steal anybody’s spot or whatever like that,” said Kapanen. “I mean, he’s pretty much my brother. He’s a brother to me. … It’s all good. I don’t think Willy’s too upset, or he’s not rooting for me. Obviously he’s going to be happy for me and hopefully we see him soon.”
Kapanen had even reached out directly to Nylander by text to make sure his spirits were still high.
As good as things look in Toronto right now, they could be even better. The Leafs’ championship aspirations would unquestionably be boosted with him back in uniform.
About an hour after coach Mike Babcock whistled an end to Tuesday’s practice, the rink fell quiet. It was around 2:30 p.m. and the lights in Dubas’s corner office had been turned off.
He had a flight to catch.