DETROIT — William Nylander is telling us a story about flipping through his cellphone and having a couple photos pop up under the memories notification.
And he’s laughing.
They were taken a year ago at this time and one of them was snapped in Switzerland — a reminder of just how far he was from the NHL in the late days of November last season.
“That’s pretty crazy,” Nylander said after a one-goal, one-assist performance during Toronto’s 6-0 win over Detroit on Wednesday. “It’s nice to be here now and taking steps in the right direction.”
Just think: He’s already put nine goals and 21 points in the bank, not too far off what he managed in more than twice the games after his long contract squabble finally ended with the Maple Leafs a year ago.
That left a bad taste in Nylander’s mouth when he got back to Stockholm for the summer and had him vowing that he’d “dominate” when he returned.
Skating alongside Auston Matthews and Andreas Johnsson, he’s delivering on that promise. They’ve been the Leafs’ best trio at 5-on-5 and have produced impressive numbers across the board — whether you’re measuring by shot rates, scoring chances, expected goals or the trusty old boxcar stats.
Nylander has 16 points to show for his last 17 games and is on pace for career bests in both goals (28) and points (66).
And if he were a stock, now would be the perfect time to buy big.
His biggest strength is how confidently he carries the puck and enters the offensive zone and under new head coach Sheldon Keefe the Leafs are being encouraged to hang on to it even longer than before. This should play right into the hands of a 23-year-old who played 94 games under Keefe in the American Hockey League before graduating to the big club.
Count him among the young Leafs who seem to have had a weight lifted since Mike Babcock was shown the door.
“I mean we’re playing with the puck, which is fun,” said Nylander.
“He’s been really good,” said Keefe. “I mean we’ve had the puck a lot here in the games recently and that of course benefits a player like Willy for sure. He and Auston both are getting pucks back a lot.¸
“They have the puck and then as soon as the other team gets it, they’re getting it back. They’ve got really good sticks and they seem to just strip the puck from the opposition pretty easily at times and it keeps them on offence.”
There wasn’t a whole lot to be gleaned from Wednesday’s dominant performance at Little Caesars Arena, not with it coming against the NHL’s worst team who lost one goalie to injury (Jimmy Howard) and had to thrust another with the flu (Jonathan Bernier) into the crease for the final 50 minutes.
But the Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander line was buzzing — getting virtually all of the high-danger chances while they were on the ice despite seeing a fair share of Detroit’s best player Dylan Larkin.
That’s been a trend through more than a quarter of the season and is a big positive for the Leafs while Mitch Marner recovers from a high-ankle sprain. The team’s other big line hasn’t ever got going since Zach Hyman (knee surgery) and John Tavares (broken finger) both missed time before Marner went down.
Nylander twice batted a puck out of the air while scoring his ninth of the season against Bernier on Wednesday and could have had his 10th when he helped Johnsson jam a loose puck home in a wild goal-mouth scramble.
“I saw the replay and I think his skate and my stick are both [touching it]. The puck is in between them and we are both pushing the puck in together,” said Nylander.
“He’s telling [everyone] he scored the goal,” added Johnsson.
There’ll be many more goals to come if they keep swarming opponents and getting so many Grade A looks.
“He’s been flying out there,” said Johnsson. “With the puck he has a lot of patience and he creates space for himself so he can pass to other guys. You know it’s fun to play with him right now. He makes plays and skates and backchecks hard and he works everywhere.
“Right now it’s very easy to play with him.”
It’s crazy to think where Nylander was a year ago — locked in an emotional negotiation with the Leafs that went right down to the wire. He signed a $45-million, six-year deal minutes before a Dec. 1 deadline that allowed him to play last season.
Even though general manager Kyle Dubas resisted every opportunity to trade him during that strained negotiation, you’d have to think his stance would have changed if they didn’t hammer something out the 11th hour and Nylander was forced to sit out the entire season.
There was more relief than excitement from the sides when they signed off on the agreement and Nylander looked like he was skating around with a bag of rocks on his shoulder when he joined the group in early December. Even when he eventually got up to full speed, the bounces weren’t on his side.
It left him feeling regretful about how things played out. He certainly never imagined that he’d be standing in front of reporters laughing about the experience.
“No I didn’t think so,” said Nylander. “Thank God I got it done.”
He’s not the only one that feels that way.