STOCKHOLM — The word most on William Nylander’s mind right now is “dominate.”
A couple weeks out from Toronto Maple Leafs training camp, he drops it in various forms during a 15-minute conversation. It’s not by coincidence. The 23-year-old has long since turned the page on a season that failed to meet expectations and is gearing up for the chance at a clean slate.
“Last year’s just gone,” Nylander said Thursday. “Out of the books, really, except for maybe taking some stuff that I learned. I look forward to dominating.
“I’m confident in how I am as a player, so I’m not too worried about it.”
This is a much different Nylander than the beaten-down version we last encountered on April 25.
The disappointment was evident in the immediate aftermath of another Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins — both because of his team’s first-round exit and a year that will be remembered more for Nylander’s prolonged contract dispute with management than anything he accomplished on the ice.
Appearing at the NHL’s European player media tour in central Stockholm, Nylander looked refreshed. He looked like a rockstar, actually, while wearing the same sunglasses he sported in a much commented-on Instagram post earlier this summer.
Back at Leafs locker clean-out day, he spoke of the regret he felt about missing all of training camp, pre-season and more than a third of the regular season before agreeing to a new six-year contract minutes before a Dec. 1 deadline. It limited his production to seven goals and 27 points and challenged him in ways he’d never previously experienced.
“I think there was a stretch where I went like 15 games or something without a point,” said Nylander. [It was actually one point in 16 games, from Dec. 13 to Jan. 18]. “That has never happened to me before.
“It was just going through the contract and everything to coming out and playing the first game right away. No team practice really. Everything was just an abnormal process.
“It was good to go through that and learn stuff from that.”
Having a more traditional summer should help.
Nylander has basically been distraction-free while spending most of the last three months training here in Sweden. He feels for teammate Mitch Marner, a restricted free agent who currently remains without a contract, because of the emotional roller-coaster negotiations can take you on.
“It’s a process, I told him. It’s just how it goes,” Nylander said of Marner. “You’re standing there and you’re thinking ‘Well why can’t this be done already?’ It’s just the way the business part of it works out.
“There will be a solution at one point in time, but you don’t know when.”
Reflecting back, Nylander says he felt like he was caught on spin cycle when his talks stretched from summer into the fall and nearly reached winter.
“It kept going in circles: ‘OK, now it feels like we’re making progress and then no and then yes and then no,’” said Nylander. “It just kept going back and forth.”
The Leafs need him to perform better to keep making gains. The smooth-skating forward will account for about 8.5 per cent of the team’s salary cap space this season and should see more playing time with Patrick Marleau and Nazem Kadri both traded away this summer.
Nylander finished the Bruins series as Toronto’s third-line centre because of a suspension to Kadri, but isn’t expecting to line up behind Auston Matthews and John Tavares again when training camp opens next month.
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to be on the wing,” he said. “I haven’t been thinking that I was going to play centre.”
He had a conversation with head coach Mike Babcock last week, but isn’t sure if he’ll be put back on Matthews’ right wing: “We’ll wait and see when training camp starts.”
Nylander rediscovered some of his damaged confidence after the NHL season when he joined Sweden for the IIHF World Hockey Championship and led the tournament in scoring. It was there he put on the No. 88 — something he’d previously worn with Sodertalje in HockeyAllsvenskan — and that planted the seed for the change he’ll make this upcoming season in Toronto.
Consider it one more page flipped.
He’s certainly heeded the advice of Babcock, who had this to say about Nylander in late April: “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.”
Nylander believes he’s ready.
He’s emerged from a trying year feeling stronger for the experience.
“I look back at that season and there were little ups and downs,” said Nylander. “There were games where I would play well and nothing would happen and that’s just how the game goes. Learning through that time period has helped me and given me experience and stuff to use for whenever that happens again.
“Now I’m ready to dominate this year.”