William Nylander returned ready for the spotlight.
Long, blond hair swept back. Beard growth carefully calibrated to 10 days. A gorgeous green wool suit, matched with a dark green, open-collar shirt. Black suede shoes.
Bradley Cooper-ish. If there’s movie star-in-the-making in the Maple Leafs dressing room, it’s the 22-year-old Nylander. And there he was, back in the Leafs dressing room, answering questions, smiling, absorbing the attention that, in this town, only a Leaf gets.
He seemed happy, perhaps relieved. Happy to be back, happy to have $40 million of security locked up in a sport that keeps the vast majority of its players insecure, uncertain whether they’re on the verge of being waived or traded. Even his arrival emphasized that, for it meant Josh Leivo, a very useful Leaf for October and November, had to be deleted from the lineup, transferred three time zones away to Vancouver for Ajax-born Michael Carcone, another smallish speedster added to an organization that loves small speedsters.
But movie stars like Nylander don’t overly worry about the rest of the cast. They know they are there to be the star, to carry the show with glamour and personality, and that’s why they get the big bucks and the glory, but also the blame when the hometown team doesn’t achieve what the hometown folks hope for, or expect.
When you’re that player, you don’t offer up a “hometown discount,” because your services are required to sell tickets and you understand that if you don’t set the price and stick by it, they’ll get away with paying you less than you’re worth. So you stay thousands of miles away in Europe, meet with a team executive in Switzerland, go skate in Austria for a while, and bide your time, believing that when the smoke clears, talent gets paid.
In the end, there was no discount, although the Leafs pleaded with him to think about the big picture and keeping a talented group of young stars together.
“I just tried to get what I deserved,” he said. “To be honest, I didn’t really think about that.”
For this year, he comes with the sixth-highest cap hit in all of hockey to play for a wealthy, high-profile team that hasn’t had nearly the stars it should have had in recent decades. He’ll never be thought of the same way in Toronto again. He’s no longer the first-round pick with potential, he’s now the rich young athlete who sat at home until the team ponied up the necessary dough to lure him back to North America.
“Contracts are signed at different times and in different situations,” said Nylander. “But I’m going to put pressure on myself. I want to be a top player.”
Nylander, relaxed and anything but intimidated by the mass of media assembled to hear his thoughts on getting his contract completed barely before Saturday’s deadline, told his version of the story without making it seem he was ever reluctant about being a Leaf. When it came down to the final 30 minutes of negotiating, it was an antsy, apprehensive Nylander calling Leafs GM Kyle Dubas to push the deal over the finish line, and then to make sure there were no screwups in the final minutes.
“I called (Dubas) and said, “Did you get (the contract)? Did you get it?,” laughed Nylander. “He said, ‘Yeah, we got it.’”
The Leafs wanted him, and he clearly wanted them.
“I always wanted to be here. I wasn’t thinking of going anywhere else,” he said. “I was thinking this might go into training camp. But I never thought it would go this long.”
While many outside the Leafs organization wondered whether the high-flying Leafs even needed Nylander, or needed to bother with his reluctance to sign, that’s clearly not how Dubas felt.
“Kyle has told me multiple times that as long as he’s here he’s not going to trade me,” said Nylander. “I’m not really too worried about that.”
Dubas and Nylander obviously have a rapport, developed by arriving in the organization at around the same time, and sharing time with the farm club.
“He’s still years away from his peak and his prime,” said Dubas, who seems to grow more and more confident in his job with every passing day. “William isn’t the type of person we want walking out of here.
“My message to Willam is that this team wouldn’t be at its full potential until he was part of it.”
Nylander arrived in “good” shape, passed his physical, and should appear later this week or early next week in a regular season game. While he exuded poise, he also expressed the blur of the past few days.
“This happened so fast,” he said. “Contract got done, I was happy for two hours, ticket was booked, bag was packed, slept for four hours and then left. You’re still amazed it’s done. You still don’t understand it’s done.
Leaf fans understandably have mixed feelings about all this. Mitch Marner has been putting up huge numbers this season, and Auston Matthews has 13 goals in 13 games when he hasn’t been injured. How people feel about Nylander’s return and his contract will depend on how he plays, and how it impacts the ability of the team to retain the other young stars.
Dubas again insisted he thinks he can keep this team together, but doesn’t want contracts to become the sole focus of Leafs fans.
“I don’t think we want to get into the practice of not having good young players,” said Dubas. “And we also have a season to play with a very good hockey team. I don’t think we want to forego the enjoyment of the season because we have other good young players who will need contracts.”
Nylander was in contact with the NHL Players’ Association throughout his time on the sidelines, and seemed well aware he may have set a precedent for other young players coming off their entry-level contracts like Mikko Rantanen, Patrik Laine and, of course, Marner and Matthews.
“I wasn’t really thinking about other players when I was negotiating,” said Nylander. “But now I know with what I’ve done, I may have created a path for other other players coming up this summer.”
He represents the new generation of young NHL stars who didn’t grow up skating on frozen ponds but were literally bred and trained by their hockey-playing fathers to develop the skills that would allow them one day to demand their share of this $5-billion industry. At 22, Nylander is making extraordinary amounts of money, which is surprising one way but not that surprising since this was the plan all along.
He trained, he developed and now he gets paid. He returned to Toronto ready to assume the role of talented star on a team of young, talented stars. This may not be the story hockey fans, fans who want to believe in a world of hockey players who would play the game for a jacket or a few thousand bucks, want to read. But it is the story of today’s NHL.