TORONTO — By the time William Nylander reunion night reached its most critical moment William Nylander had already long since been relegated to the bench.
There was no fairy-tale return after a seven-month hiatus from the Toronto Maple Leafs, no magic from the blonde-mopped winger who enjoyed only a partial twirl back with Auston Matthews in Thursday’s 5-4 overtime loss to Detroit.
On some level it was to be expected. There’s a huge gap between thrice-weekly skates with AIK’s under-20 team in Stockholm and Game 29 of the Leafs regular-season schedule, especially when you consider that Nylander hadn’t even been afforded a full practice since signing his $45-million, six-year extension minutes before Saturday’s Group 2 deadline.
The one big conditioning skate he was supposed to have Wednesday got wiped out by a broken down bus, which kept the Leafs from arriving back from their overtime win in Buffalo until 3 a.m. that morning.
So it was an ambitious gambit to even put him in against the Red Wings and it provided no payoff for Toronto. Nylander drew a Niklas Kronwall holding penalty and had a couple shot attempts blocked, but otherwise didn’t get a whole lot accomplished in 12:29 of ice time — the 10th-lowest total of his 186-game NHL career.
"I thought Willy was fine," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "It was probably unfair for me – we had the bus thing that happened, we were supposed to practice together, we never even gave the guy a practice. We wanted to get him in. You’ve got two guys on that line, one coming back from injury [in Matthews] and one who hasn’t played."
You couldn’t help but come away from a game like this wondering how long it might take the 22-year-old Swede to get up to full speed. The Leafs are spilling over with options and time. They are among the NHL leaders with a 20-8-1 record and had the luxury of starting wingers Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson on their third line Thursday, only to see both score goals against the Red Wings.
Johnsson’s marker capped a wild three-goal, third-period comeback that started after Babcock bumped him and Kapanen up to the Matthews line. That initially saw Nylander dropped back to a spot with Patrick Marleau and Nazem Kadri before he was nailed to the bench for the final 14-plus minutes, a span that included four shifts during a 3-on-3 overtime period where he’d normally be a lock to skate with Matthews.
It may be some time before that duo is reunited with a game on the line. The Leafs head out now for a five-game road trip that starts with Saturday’s visit to Boston and Babcock will be mindful of not owning the last line change.
Amid all of the enthusiasm for Nylander’s highly anticipated return, there was no pitch count placed on him by the coaching staff. Had things gone better they would have rolled him out there repeatedly in his first action since the Game 7 loss in Boston on April 25.
"I wanted him to play a ton. I just want to get him out there and get him going," said Babcock. "Any time you’ve missed that amount of hockey, it’s going to be hard for him. But I talked to [Matthews] about that, too. They’re both going to have to do extra. We’re going to do it every practice day and they’ll crawl their way back to being the players they’re capable of being."
So maybe there was a small pinch in the coach’s decision, too, after an extended contract impasse kept Nylander from participating in training camp, exhibition play and more than 30 per cent of the regular-season schedule.
Babcock has a tremendous challenge on his hands here — one any of his colleagues would crawl across the continent for — in trying to find enough ice time to keep all of these forwards happy. He might go to the blender more often than in the past, especially on the nights where the Leafs fall behind.
Toronto was simply out of sync against a Red Wings team it expected to beat with relative ease. Backup Garret Sparks had a tough night in goal. The steady Zach Hyman-John Tavares-Mitch Marner trio didn’t find its top level until the team was already in a 4-1 hole. Nylander was benched, playing less than every forward not named Par Lindholm or Tyler Ennis.
"It felt OK," Nylander said of his return. "I mean there’s a lot of difference from practicing with yourself and with the team back home. I started feeling better and the legs were OK. It felt like an OK first game."
There will be patience as he finds his way. The reason Kyle Dubas eventually took the Nylander negotiations slightly beyond his comfort zone was to give his team its best possible chance at competing for the Stanley Cup.
We’ve got a lot of road to travel between then and now, and Babcock conceded that he saw some glimpses of the real Nylander in his first game back since becoming a handsomely paid franchise pillar.
"Obviously, he’s got skill. On a few regroups and that," said Babcock. "In open ice, you have that, but in the battles you don’t have any juice. You just haven’t been in them."
Nylander is in the fire again and there’s only one direction for him to go from here.