Maple Leafs’ Nylander aims to improve after regrettable contract standoff

Mike Babcock discusses William Nylander’s status heading into an important offseason for the 22-year-old Swede.

TORONTO — The moments where William Nylander looked like himself and felt like himself were fleeting in his third NHL season. And as the Toronto Maple Leafs forward began reflecting on the regression in his game this year, he acknowledged having second thoughts about the long contract standoff he waged with the organization.

“Yeah, I just wish I would have been here from the beginning,” Nylander said Thursday. “I think that was probably one of the things that I regret about it.”

It was only minutes before a Dec. 1 deadline passed when he eventually signed off on a seven-year deal worth a pro-rated $48.3-million. He sat out all of training camp, the exhibition schedule and 28 regular-season games.

And, after posting consecutive 61-point seasons, he saw a significant dip in production upon his return — finishing with seven goals and 27 points in 54 games.

Nylander’s name is likely to surface in rumours this summer because the Leafs are facing a cap crunch and he will have been paid more than $17-million from the new deal as of July 1. After that point, he’ll be a huge asset on a value contract in terms of actual dollars owed.

But the soon-to-be-23-year-old believes he has a pledge from general manager Kyle Dubas that he won’t be dealt, and isn’t heading back to Sweden after another Game 7 loss to Boston with any concerns about his future in Toronto.

“I know what I’m capable of doing. I know that Kyle knows what I’m capable of doing,” said Nylander. “This year didn’t show nearly to where I can be at as a player. I have higher expectations for myself moving forward.

“I know I’m going to be way better.”

After the Leafs cleaned out their locker stalls and held exit meetings on Thursday morning, Dubas took responsibility for Nylander’s lost season. He said he should have started negotiations with the player’s agent, Lewis Gross, before the June entry draft and been less passive through the summer when the sides started exchanging numbers.

The first-year GM said the blame resided with “me and me alone.”

“We didn’t get it done for training camp, we didn’t get it done to start the season, we didn’t get it done until there was three minutes left or whatever there was left,” said Dubas. “It’s not acceptable. It didn’t set William up to have success.”

Nylander skated with AIK’s under-20 team in Stockholm during his contract standoff and spent a week in Austria practising with a pro team there. He struggled with conditioning after initially returning to the NHL in December and only worked his way back up to a spot on Auston Matthews’s right wing briefly in the latter part of the regular season.

During the playoffs he was moved to centre following Nazem Kadri’s suspension in Game 2, and finished with a goal and three points in the loss to the Bruins.

“It was a long process mentally through the year,” said Nylander. “Obviously I didn’t get to where I wanted to be throughout the entire season and in the playoffs. … I think this summer will be a big summer for me in order to get back to where I should be.”

It remains an open question about where he’ll play next season and likely depends on whether Kadri is brought back. For his part, Mike Babcock indicated that he’d prefer to have Nylander stay on the wing.

The head coach hopes Nylander leaves Toronto as soon as possible and starts clearing his mind following the disappointing campaign. Perhaps he’ll go to Slovakia and represent Sweden at next month’s IIHF World Hockey Championship.

“Willy’s a proud guy, he’s a great kid and he has a chance to be a real good player,” said Babcock. “He wasn’t a good player [this year], and no one wears that more than Willy, and you be honest about that.

“So he needs to get out of here, he needs to get home, he needs to get recharged, he needs to get training and get his game back on track and get his swagger back. … It’s a huge summer because we need him to be a factor.”

The Leafs young core will be in charge when they return in the fall. It will be the first season where Nylander, Matthews and Mitch Marner are all playing on full-value contracts, and they’ll have to carry the load with less money available to spend on secondary players.

By then, Nylander’s drawn-out negotiation will be nothing more than a distant memory.

He hopes it’s a learning experience.

“I’ve never been in a process like this,” said Nylander. “I mean I was practising by myself for a couple months. It was a pretty weird process, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

“Obviously I wanted to come back and be the player I can be, but I wasn’t able to do that.”

It’s up to him now to make sure there isn’t a repeat performance.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.