TORONTO -- Despite what headstrong partisans on either side of the aisle would have you believe, there is more than one truth when it comes to William Nylander.
Nylander can be an elite game-breaker, willing and capable of driving to the net -- and not only across the enemy’s blue line. The type of passer, puck-stripper and sniper that’ll improve any top six. The brand of high-end talent his GM is banking his blueprint on and his coach is loath to punish at the expense of a win.
And Nylander can float or, worse, vanish at times. He’ll go on maddening stretches with minimal impact or, worse, appear to lose interest in the mundane but important details of the game.
The debate surrounding the player isn’t black-and-white. It’s 88 shades of grey.
Star boy and whipping boy: Nylander, 24, can ping-pong between the doghouse and the penthouse. In this case, in the span of four days.
On Saturday, Nylander was stapled cold to the end of coach Sheldon Keefe’s bench as cheaper but more defensively trusted forwards helped preserve the victory.
On Wednesday, Nylander threw himself into a crease scramble to jam home a late tying goal. He got knocked down and back up again. Minutes later, he wheeled past Sean Monahan and flicked the winner smooth and high with speed and grace on an outside-inside deke, going full hero mode.
“Part of it, perhaps, is being misunderstood, but part of it is just he’s still got to grow as a player,” said Keefe, who knows Nylander better than you or I ever will.
“Why is he misunderstood? I think Willy has to own some of that. He’s got to find more consistency in his game. He and I have talked a lot about those kind of things. He’s got to be engaged and good without the puck.”
With and without the puck, Nylander was on his finest behaviour in Wednesday’s 2-1 come-from-behind overtime thriller over David Rittich and the Calgary Flames.
After playing just 13:55 Saturday versus Montreal, Nylander earned all of his 22:15 in Monday’s shutout loss to Calgary. Keefe spotted a jump in his legs and sensed Nylander was ready to bust through.
And although it took Elias Lindholm to clang an empty-net post earlier in the same shift, Nylander pounced on a 6-on-5 crease scramble and tied the contest with 88 seconds left in regulation.
Following 11 failed power-plays and 70 stopped shots, Toronto had finally solved Rittich.
— Mark Blinch (@mblinch) February 25, 2021
Nylander’s OT dagger, at speed off a feed from Auston Matthews, was poetry. And the boys enveloped the first star in a group hug. Relief, joy, and a side order of redemption.
“Extremely happy. People get on him a lot,” said Zach Hyman post-win. “People don’t realize how much he cares and how much he wants to win. To see him be the hero tonight and get the last two goals there, it’s just great.”
Hyman, who’s grown alongside Nylander since their Marlies days, is an interesting and adamant defender of the Swede. One is a straight line of dependability, the other a roller coaster with hair whipping like it’s riding one.
“You don't do the things he does away from the rink, when people don't watch, if you don't care and you don't love the game,” said Hyman. “He works his butt off in the summertime. He's one of the strongest guys on our team, underratedly.
“But sometimes he just gets misunderstood. And I think when he’s skating and when he's putting himself in good spots, I think you see the results. I think the guys in the locker room all have his back.
“I've known him for a long time, and I can’t speak higher of him.”
The night’s glory wasn’t given; in a defensively responsible affair at both ends, it was earned.
Toronto out-chanced Calgary 5-1 in high-danger opportunities when Nylander was helping tilt the ice, and Nylander himself fired six shots on net -- his most since March 5.
The Nylanderthals (copyright, Anthony Stewart) will leap atop their Ikea coffee tables and dance the Toosie Slide over this one.
The haters will point out that Nylander registered two shots or less in nine of the 10 games that preceded Wednesday. That his production has dipped and that, for the first season in his career, he’s giving away more pucks (19) than he’s stealing (13).
“Well, it’s kind of always been around me, that kind of stuff, so I’m used to it,” Nylander said. “I know I’ve underperformed, and I know I can do better. I’ve got levels to get to where I want to be.”
Does Nylander feel misunderstood?
“I don't really read or anything you guys write most of the time,” he replied. “I try to put my work in as good as I can every day of the week and try to battle. I mean, coming off a couple tough games for myself, I want to get back to where I can be.”
To that end, he’s trying to shoot more and keep his feet moving. Nylander’s heroics versus Calgary were a giant step in the right direction.
“He is such a big part of our hockey team and our locker room, with his personality and his drive to be a great player,” captain John Tavares said.
“Awesome to see him get two big ones tonight. I know very uplifting for him, and that’s the type of player he wants to be. He wants to be big in those types of moments.”