RALEIGH, N.C. — No stone is left unturned in the Toronto Maple Leafs efforts to maximize player performance. That’s why William Nylander has found no internal pressure to perform at a high-end level since returning from his long contract impasse.
By the best estimates of the Leafs sports science department, it typically takes a player 12 days after training camp before his heart rate levels out during exertion.
That would put Nylander on schedule to be functioning at his peak sometime in mid-January after hitting the ground running last week and so far playing more games (three) than he’s had full practices (two) with the Leafs.
Given the timeframe involved, Tuesday’s 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes should be seen as a big step forward for the Swedish winger. These are still early days and he made a noticeable impact at PNC Arena, getting rewarded with two assists.
The second came on a play where his offensive gifts were on full display, with Nylander protecting the puck while coming in on a 2-on-1 before feathering a perfect pass to Patrick Marleau only once defenceman Calvin de Haan lunged at him in a futile effort to break up the play.
“I just saw that [Marleau] was driving the far post,” said Nylander. “I didn’t really have anything to shoot at, I felt like, so I just wanted to pass it to him.”
It was a reminder of why the Leafs were enticed to reach a little beyond their comfort zone in order to get him signed minutes before the Dec. 1 deadline that would have ruled him out for the season.
It also underscored why the Hurricanes and several other teams tried to pry him away from the Leafs in a trade when contract negotiations stalled.
Even at something less than 100 per cent, Nylander has the kind of undeniable offensive talent that helps produce victories. On Tuesday he played alongside Marleau and Nazem Kadri, and they controlled play against Carolina’s third line of Micheal Ferland, Clark Bishop and Brock McGinn during a dominant first period.
The matchup shifted when Ferland was lost to an upper-body injury, but Nylander still finished the night with Toronto controlling 61 per cent of the even-strength shot attempts while he was on the ice.
There were a few spotty moments, too, including six shifts that extended beyond a minute. That’ll make the legs burn at the best of times, let alone when you’re just getting up and running after seven-plus months between games.
One of those shifts saw Nylander desperately wrap his arms around Lucas Wallmark in the defensive zone before keeling over his stick and gasping for air when the play was stopped to give him a minor penalty for holding.
But in Mike Babcock he has found an understanding ally. Nylander’s night also included a double-minor for an accidental high-stick, which the Leafs killed off successfully, and yet the head coach had no trouble seeing the big picture when assessing his performance.
“It’s going to take him time, though. Let’s not get carried away,” said Babcock. “They’re all fine as long as the ice is open, but as soon as it’s in contact and you’ve got to keep your legs going, you get stuck out on a shift.
“He took a penalty the one time he got stuck out on a shift. It’s hard for you. It’s going to take some time. So we’ll be patient, he has to be [too].”
Back under the care of the Leafs, Nylander is doing everything he can to fast-track the process. He skated regularly with AIK’s under-20 team in Stockholm while contract negotiations dragged on, but there was no way to mimic the kind of pace he’s seen since returning to the NHL.
He skated twice with assistant coach D.J. Smith when he first got back to Toronto and has been doing extra work every day since. On Tuesday morning, when only the Leafs scratches and depth players participated in an optional skate, Nylander was out on the ice, too, trying to improve his conditioning.
“It takes time,” said teammate Morgan Rielly, who scored his career-best 10th of the season against Carolina. “He didn’t have a training camp, he played no pre-season games and he’s playing against guys that are in mid-season form. It’s a tough situation to come in to, but he’s done a great job.
“He’s worked very hard and he’s happy to be back and we’re happy to have him back.”
“I’m sure he’s going to feel more comfortable as we go on,” added goalie Frederik Andersen. “Keep pushing it.”
While it’s a little early to read too much into Nylander’s deployment, you can see the benefit his depth brings to the Leafs lineup. The Marleau-Kadri-Nylander line has controlled 73 per cent of shot attempts in a little more than 23 minutes together so far, an advantage built on the fact opposing teams tend to put their best checkers on the Auston Matthews and John Tavares units.
Having a player as talented as Nylander on the third line is not a luxury many other NHL teams have. Now just imagine when he gets up to full speed.
“Every game is getting better and better,” he said.