Leafs, Nylander keeping expectations modest ahead of season debut

William Nylander blames the team bus for not skating with the team earlier. The young Swede jokes with media after his first practice but Auston Matthews and Mike Babcock were just happy to have him back.

TORONTO — William Nylander waited and waited. Then even after signing his big extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he had to wait some more.

All the 22-year-old Swede wanted to do after ending his contract impasse was get back on the ice with teammates. That should have happened with a practice on Wednesday, but it ended up being cancelled when the Leafs bus had engine trouble following a 4-3 overtime win in Buffalo on Tuesday night.

“I’ve been skating by myself, so I was waiting to practice with the guys and then the bus broke down,” said Nylander. “It was like, ‘Oh OK, just one more day by myself.'”

Nylander has had two solo sessions with assistant coach D.J. Smith since signing his $45-million, six-year deal on Saturday afternoon. He finally got to rejoin the Leafs for a 20-minute morning skate Thursday and will jump straight back into the lineup against the Detroit Red Wings that night.

Expectations are modest given that it’s been more than seven months since Nylander last played competitively — in Toronto’s Game 7 loss to Boston on April 25.

“I think it goes without saying: It’s his first game of the year, no pre-season, no anything,” said Auston Matthews. “There’s going to be that rust there.”

“Just try to skate out there and just play simple from the beginning. Work my way into games. That’s all I can do,” added Nylander.

Still, Leafs coach Mike Babcock is throwing him directly onto the top line — alongside Matthews and Patrick Marleau — and giving him right-point duties on the second power-play unit.

Despite only playing with its full lineup for the first time now, Toronto still has the NHL’s second-best points percentage (.714) and second-highest goals-per-game average (3.64). In Nylander, the Leafs are adding a player coming off consecutive 60-point seasons who can be a difference-maker on any given night.

“When he skated yesterday, he was strong, great edges, shot the puck. He’s an intelligent player,” said Babcock. “Once he gets up to speed here, he’ll be real good, but we expect him to have energy here tonight.

“He should be the freshest guy in hockey.”

The biggest initial hurdle, according to Detroit’s Andreas Athanasiou, will be the first couple shifts. Athanasiou didn’t sign until Oct. 23 last season because of a contract standoff, and remembers how fast everything felt.

It’s almost like joining a race after its already started and trying to keep pace with the leaders.

“Everybody’s been at game speed for the last couple months and he’s been practising, so it’s a little bit different,” said Athanasiou. “When I came back it was Tampa, the first two shifts it was fast, I was huffing and puffing a little bit. But right after that, it was back in the groove of things.”

Nylander did everything he could to keep his conditioning high.

He skated with AIK’s under-20 team in Stockholm a couple times per week and joined an Austrian professional team for a few practices as well. There was also time spent in the gym and on one-on-one skills training.

It was an extremely difficult process, especially with how well things were going in Toronto without him.

“It’s been fun watching them play, but I mean, you want to be there as well,” said Nylander. “I’m just excited to be here finally and enjoying the boys.”

There was a palpable enthusiasm in the Leafs’ dressing room in the hours leading up to his return to the lineup.

“When you’ve got a player of his skill-set and the level he can play at, there’s things that just don’t go away,” said John Tavares. “Even if you pick up a stick and you haven’t held it in your hand for two to three months. Certainly I think you’re going to see why he’s a special player, not just tonight but over the course of the rest of the season.

“I think for him, the good thing is he doesn’t have to go out there and try to do it all.”

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