TORONTO – The day after the nadir of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season, the players were told they didn’t need to come to the rink for practice. Take it easy. Maybe think about your sins. Come back recharged.
One Leaf who had just lost to a Zamboni driver–slash–emergency goalie was spotted clocking in at work on his day off anyway.
There was William Nylander at Ford Performance Centre, joining the injured Ilya Mikheyev, pumping pucks at frenemy David Ayres, absolving the embarrassment with more shooting drills. And there was Nylander again this Wednesday, first on the ice.
The lazy knock on Nylander is that the natural-born talent doesn’t put forth the effort, and we think much of that false notion has to do with the aesthetics of his game.
Nylander doesn’t chug and charge, bang or crash. (Imagine: In 68 games, the guy threw all of nine hits, half of them probably by accident.) He floats and dips, weaves head up, golden flow whispering in the wind. He makes a sector of hockey diehards want to chuck lunch pails at him.
But don’t confuse his mirage of effortlessness with not trying.
“Will’s a guy who loves to be on the ice, first of all,” Nylander’s coach, Sheldon Keefe, states. “There’s no questioning his work ethic and his preparation off the ice and in practices or on his own personal time on the ice. He does what he needs to do to get himself prepared, and I’m not worried about him on that front.”
To be sure, there was concern about the 24-year-old heading into 2019-20. And for self-inflicted reason. It was one thing for Nylander to push his 2018 contract negotiation to the 11th hour, as was his right as a restricted free agent. It was quite another to see him cash $12 million, score just seven goals and add one more in a seven-game playoff loss to Boston.
A stellar turn at the 2019 world championships, a vow to “dominate” last fall, a Comeback Player of the Year nod from the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, and a career-best 31-goal campaign later, Nylander looks worth every penny of his $6.96-million cap hit.
“I was playing pretty good there,” Nylander said this week at camp, where he’s been reunited with Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman on Toronto’s top line. “I got in a good flow, and I think I started to find my game and develop in the areas where my strengths are. I was getting more out of my game.”
What is both frustrating and encouraging, five seasons into Nylander’s NHL run, is a sense that there is still more to squeeze out.
Keefe’s challenge is to summon a consistent level of effort and competitiveness from the winger game-to-game. The feeling is that, yes, Nylander is a zone-entry master and 42 takeaways this season are swell, but he could have even more steals.
“It’s part of Will’s nature, at times, to not be as engaged as you’d like him to be. And he needs a push. Sometimes it comes from me, but sometimes it comes from himself as well. He’s a guy that is hard on himself,” Keefe explains.
The coach tries to guide through positive reinforcement, showing Nylander clips not of his mistakes, but rather of shifts where he’s hounding the puck with a strong stick and winning it back along the wall. He wants to drill a sense of urgency into the player.
“At times, he doesn’t even need to see the clips. He knows the situations you’re talking about,” Keefe says. “I showed him a number of different clips where he was all over the puck and winning pucks back. One very underrated thing about William is the way he can win pucks back in terms of takeaways in the offensive zone; he’s right near the top of the league in that regard.”
Nylander led all Leafs with seven game-winners this season but has yet to score more than once in each of his three post-season series.
As with all topics, the self-proclaimed “typical rockstar” (as per his Instagram bio) doesn’t seem stressed about his production in do-or-die situations.
Nylander is a man of much fashion and few words. One of his go-to phrases is “of course.”
“Of course,” he and Matthews have chemistry.
“Of course,” he’s feeling much better about heading into the Columbus series than he was the Bruins tilt last year.
“Of course,” he wants to prove he’s a showtime player in August.
“I mean, that’s where the big players show up, and that’s where I think a big part of my game this year will help me become a dominant player in the playoffs,” Nylander said. “Playoff hockey is a little different, so I think that’s why we need to have a high intensity here in camp to get us all ready.”
As we’ve seen, a refreshed Nylander can be a dangerous Nylander.
During the pause, he and his younger brother, Chicago Blackhawks forward Alexander, headed down to Florida. They soaked in the sun, played 45 tennis matches against each other (estimated score: Alex 23, Willy 22), and competed in video games. Shirts optional.
They also did this:
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“We had a blast,” Nylander says. “We were just playing around with [the Toosie Slide] and we thought it was a fun thing to do, so that’s why he posted it.”
But when the call came to get back to work, Nylander hurried back to Toronto to serve his quarantine. He only missed two days of Phase 2’s voluntary workouts, and by all accounts his conditioning has him game-ready.
“I feel good out there,” Nylander smiles.
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