Foreshadowing is a beautiful thing.
A little over a week before Sheldon Keefe stapled William Nylander to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ bench for the final 8:45 of Saturday’s 5-3 victory in Montreal, the coach discussed his strategy when it comes to planting a star player on the pine.
“Everything is situational,” Keefe explained, thoughtfully. “It’s usually an accumulation of things. You don’t overact to one incident or one different thing. For me, it’s usually the end of a long line of events that have occurred with a lot of communication and discussion. It's not something I resort to all that often.”
In the long shadow cast by the dominance of Auston Matthews (18 goals in 18 games) and Mitchell Marner (more points than anyone not named Connor McDavid), the deadliest power play on the planet, and the Maple Leafs’ general snowplowing (14-3-2) through the rest of Canada, has been a John Tavares and Nylander duo that has been fine but less than fantastic at even strength.
Keefe admits Tavares has been “fighting it” lately and has made a point to extol the captain’s defensive prowess.
Because actions speak louder than words, it was notable that during the final frame of Thursday’s 7-3 blowout of Ottawa, the coach flipped Nylander onto Matthews’ wing and blessed Tavares with 20 minutes of Marner in hopes wildfire would spread.
Tavares scored his first goal in seven games, via a Marner pass, and Nylander (1-1-2) snuffed out his six-game point drought.
“A lot of games without a point,” Nylander said post-game Thursday. “Obviously, it gets to you a little bit. It was nice to get a goal and an assist today for that reason.”
On Thursday, Nylander was given the carrot. On Saturday, the stick.
In effort to keep his group on task as it attempts to sprint away with a divisional crown, Keefe has been stressing the necessity of situational wisdom, to lock down leads instead of greedily go gobbling for more cookies.
This is about habits more than standings points.
Funny thing is, Nylander came out of the gates at Bell Centre with jump, driving to the net with purpose. And the recent addition of Alexander Kerfoot to the opposite wing has given the Tavares line a dash of feistiness and finish.
But when the visitors emerged from a wild, six-goal second period with a two-goal lead, Keefe simply wanted to hold the fort against an opponent that had been resting all week for this match.
Twenty minutes of safe and boring, then get outta Dodge.
Nylander, in the coach’s estimation, was too loose. When Nylander was on the ice, the Canadiens were generating more scoring chances (8-6) and high-danger chances (4-2), per NaturalStatTrick.com. During Nylander's final shift, he attempted a touch pass to Tavares in the neutral zone that was picked off and led to a decent Canadiens chance the other way.
Star forwards like Matthews and Marner — plus dutiful middle-class role players like Zach Hyman, Ilya Mikheyev and Kerfoot — have delivered an improved level of defensive consistency without the puck this season.
Nylander has been more explosive yet more erratic. He’s the most divisive talent in Leafs Nation.
“I thought both tonight and last game he’s had a lot of really good stretches where he’s got good legs and he looks real dangerous, like he’s ready to break out,” Keefe said.
“I didn’t like some of the things here today once we got the lead. As a team, I didn’t think we did great things in the second period. But in the third period we really got it going the way we wanted to, and I didn’t think Willy matched that.”
Keefe has gone to great lengths to tighten the ship this season, and Nylander’s mini benching is part of that. The coach wants to nip lackadaisical efforts in the bud. (Remember, Tuesday was intended to be a day off, but after the players blew a 5-1 lead to Ottawa Monday, the Leafs looked at video and discussed the debacle out in the open.)
By chopping Nylander’s ice time to 13:55 Saturday, the lowest it’s been in more than 14 months, Keefe delivered a message to the player — and the group — without risking the victory.
What is simultaneously frustrating and encouraging, six seasons into Nylander’s NHL career, is a sense that there is still more to squeeze out.
Keefe’s challenge is to summon 200-foot competitiveness from his dynamic winger on a nightly basis.
The coach’s relationship with the player stretches back to 2015, when Nylander lit it up for his Marlies. Keefe gave a glimpse into their relationship over the summer.
“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 explained back in July.
Keefe tries to guide Nylander through positive reinforcement, showing him 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 instill a sense of urgency.
“At times, he doesn’t even need to see the clips. He knows the situations you’re talking about,” Keefe went on. “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.”
We see Nylander’s half-period benching Saturday as much about the coach as it is about the player.
The Maple Leafs are raising their defensive expectations this season.
Stakes are higher. And the standards have followed suit.