TORONTO – Auston Matthews called it.
Once coach Mike Babcock reinserted the slumping William Nylander on his right side, the Maple Leafs star centre took it upon himself to play monkey exterminator.
"He’s going to score a goal, and the weight of the world is going to be off his shoulders," Matthews accurately predicted Wednesday, ahead of Thursday’s matinee versus the Wild.
"I told him I’ll definitely be looking for him tomorrow, and I told him to shoot everything."
And so it was written, that a Nylander-Matthews-Nylander give-and-go on a buttery behind-the-net cycle would see Nylander glide out from behind goalie Devan Dubnyk’s right blind spot and snap a wrist shot high and clean and only 256 days in the waiting.
"I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe it. Finally.’" Nylander said post-game. "There are a couple more things I can do better. But it’s at least been nice that you’re able to get chances when you’re not playing at 100 per cent. Because then when you are at 100 per cent, you’ll be good."
Riding elation from his first goal of the season, his first in an unlucky 13 games dating back to April — and his first point of his past nine outings, snapping the greatest production drought of his career and likely his life — Nylander leapt into the arms of a giddy Travis Dermott, un-swallowed himself from a group hug, reached back to his nameplate and threw an imaginary monkey over the glass and deep into Section 323.
"That’s big for him," Matthews said, finding a positive after the Maple Leafs squandered the 3-2 lead that Nylander’s marker gave them and fell 4-3 to the Wild. "He can get goin’ again.”
Matthews can empathize. Used to lighting lamps at will, he went 13 games without a goal in his rookie year — and still wound up lifting the Calder Trophy.
"I felt like the weight of the world was coming down on me. People were saying trade me and all that stuff. It can definitely weigh on you as a player, as a person," Matthews explains.
"But I think once that one comes, you feel that extra jump in your step. You’re back feeling confident and hopefully get back on a roll."
A 22-year-old with two 20-goal seasons, Nylander’s 2018-19 has been anything but the projected giant step in forward progress that a smart exec like Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is banking on. He’s copped to frustration and anger, and — over the break — had his aunt/hairdresser chop off his flowing locks.
Nylander sat out training camp with a contract impasse you may have read about it, and he’s been scrambling ever since to catch up to race in which the other horses were already at full stride and rounding the quartermark as he stepped into the starting gate.
Cringe-watching Nylander bobble pucks and get line-juggled and scuffle to a minus-4 rating on a plus-34 freight train has served as a warning for all involved. That it was a puck off Nylnader’s blade that accidentally concussed goalie Garret Sparks during Wednesday’s practice didn’t exactly boost the vibe surrounding the star skater.
"It’s certainly not the way that you want it to play out. You don’t want players missing two months of the season plus training camp and exhibition in their preparation time," Dubas told Sportsnet’s TV panel before the game, mindful he can’t take a similar if-you-got-time-use-it approach with impending RFAs Matthews and Mitch Marner.
"The inclination is that everyone wants to be patient, everyone wants to take their time, but we’re wide-open on those. Everyone realizes these are paramount discussions. Both Mitch and Auston bring leadership. They’re obviously excellent young players, and they’re key, key parts of our franchise, not only on the ice but off the ice.
"Our goal is to get those done as soon as we can and keep an open dialogue with their representatives."
Though the organization did an excellent job muting expectations for Nylander’s true return by pulling out a sports-scientific mid-January timeline, Dubas conceded Thursday that team success helped obscure the underwhelming performance of Toronto’s new $45-million man.
"It’s another case of adversity for William. Luckily, with the team playing the way that it has, it’s sort of masked that and given him some breathing room," Dubas said. "We’ll see him on the verge of returning to his usual form."
To a man, Nylander’s teammates have been publicly supportive and patient throughout this four-month process.
"He came to the rink with the attitude every single day of happiness and pure joy," Marner says of how Nylander handled the dry spell.
"It’s a great relief to him and our team that he’s getting on that scoresheet now. He’s found his groove. Now it’s going to be scary for other teams now we got him back."
The pressure doesn’t suddenly evaporate with one perfectly placed shot.
With great compensation comes great responsibility.
Babcock’s promotion of Nylander to the top six — which, conversely, demotes a hard-working Kasperi Kapanen to Nazem Kadri’s perpetually in-flux third line — isn’t so much a reward of merit as it is a coach doing everything in his quiver to get an important forward engaged.
Nylander ranks just eighth among Leafs forwards in average ice time (15:02) and skates on the seldom-used second power-play unit, and it was telling that with Thursday’s points on the line and Leafs goaltender Michael Hutchinson pulled early, Nylander didn’t see time 6-on-5.
The ignition has been turned. The gas pedal needs slamming.
"Ideally what [that first goal] is going to do is get him to compete harder, skate harder and take a load off him and get going," Babcock said.
"I thought he was going to get the winner here tonight; I thought one was going to be enough. In the end, it wasn’t. That’s all he got.
"We need him to help our team and be a productive Leaf. We think he can be, and it’s just a matter of time."