On William Nylander and rewarding a coach who punished you

Nick Kypreos and Justin Bourne discuss the issues with the Leafs' right-wing, who recently got demoted by Sheldon Keefe.

I’ll admit it. It’s time to come clean here: there was a lot of William Nylander to my own game.

To be clear, that excludes his ability to skate and use his edges, to shoot, to see the game, and more generally to play the sport. Upon further review, I played nothing like him, and about a tenth as well. But at various levels (BCHL, NCAA and the ECHL) I was a top-six forward, and a pretty good one in some cases, and … prone to long stretches of sleepy play that made my coaches pull their hair out.

I was twice the player when I was engaged, able to create for my teammates, drive the action to the opposition, and generate offence with every shift. You’d think then, I would have an explanation for why I didn’t do that more. You’ll note my career topped out with a single NHL exhibition game, which surely could’ve been improved upon with more consistent engagement. So why didn’t I get up for more hockey games?

The truth is, I don’t know. I wish I knew. I like to think that if I could do it all over again, I would push myself more on the mental side of the game. I wish I had taken it all more seriously, and recognized the opportunity that was in front of me. I guess I was pretty content that life would be OK either way, and so when I didn’t have my legs, or I wasn’t as mentally sharp, I just waited and hoped for chances that sometimes came, and often didn’t.

“Hoped” is probably the key word there -- it’s a curse among some coaches -- because there’s a lot of luck involved in hockey, and some days you can sleep through a game, get a couple lucky bounces and things come out looking OK. You “hope” that’s the case, anyway. I didn’t excel at forcing the issue when the game dealt me a more challenging hand and I wasn’t feeling my best.

I’m still talking about Nylander here, too, of course. That reputation has dogged him at times, with the fans and with teammates and with his coaches. He’s just such an elite talent that even with stretches of uninspired play he can casually deposit 30 goals, 70 points and happily ride off into the sunset. The problem for those tasked with getting the most out of him is that Nylander’s got the ceiling of a number of guys who finish in the top-10 in scoring, yet even with his great statistical season he finds himself 42nd, after finishing 64th last year. His statistical comparables are more like Clayton Keller and Kevin Fiala than the tier of guys six-through-10 in league scoring, which today includes Nazem Kadri, Matthew Tkachuk, Kyle Connor and J.T. Miller. And that just doesn’t quite feel right.

Still, I can’t help but watch Nylander and relate to his being intermittently thrust into one of the most frustrating positions: rewarding a coach for punishing him. After you’ve been benched, or demoted, or worse, healthy scratched, it’s an extremely odd position for a player, particularly for a guy like Willy who’s on a long-term contract (or as it was in my case, a four-year scholarship). Whether you “need” a kick or not, it never feels good, or makes you overly pleased with the person doling it out. And so after you’ve been put back in the lineup, or called out publicly, if you play extremely well you reward the very person who just punished you. You give positive reinforcement to that punishment. I’ve been watching Nylander the past couple games drive the net and live in the blue paint and look like the best version of himself all over 200 feet and thinking how much more ammo it gives his coach, and heck, even his detractors.

It was just at the start of the season that Sheldon Keefe had this to say about Nylander:

"I have talked to Will a number of times. He has made it clear to me that he is a guy who wants and needs to be pushed and challenged. He feels that he needs that. At times, that is the way it is going to go for him.

What we have seen from Will at times is a dominant player who is as good or better than anybody on the ice, who has carried us through some tough patches and produced at a high level. At other times, it is not as good. What we are trying to find with Will and all of our players is to make sure the difference between your best and your worst is not a massive gap."

From a coach's standpoint, you’ve gotta respect that. But as the player, respectfully, I always felt that the guy who just took me off the first line and told me to go sit in the stands could go kick rocks.

Recently, Keefe tactfully answered questions about Nylander by saying he didn’t want to “pile on Will,” and that Nylander knows he needs to be better. And since then, Nylander has been better. It once again gives the impression that he can turn this sort of play on and off like a light switch, though I’m not sure how true that really is. It would be remarkable if it were. And when Nylander turns it on after getting demoted, it likely strengthens that old familiar loop of Willy plays great, gets praised, gets sleepy, gets called out, plays great, gets praised, gets sleepy, and on into retirement.

In my opinion, there is no fix on a different team or with a different coach, this is just the type of player Nylander is and will always be. There’s no call to action from me here, where I think Keefe should be harder on him (that’s not sustainable over a long-term relationship) or should lay off him entirely (that’s more likely to let these stretches go on longer).

It's just an orchid of a situation, where if Nylander gets the right amount of light and a little water and the right temperature, he can thrive and be beautiful. For the Leafs in the playoffs last year, they got the most exquisite version of Nylander, and that’s when they needed him most. They’re aiming to do that again this season.

Part of that perfect eco-system, for this particular player and for players like him, is that once in a while, they just need that little extra push. That’s a fact. And as much as players in this mold may not like rewarding their coach for punishing them -- as I mentioned, I sure didn’t -- the alternative is an absolute non-option. Nobody is going to knowingly continue to play worse unless they’re dying to get traded or in my case, cut. Those cases are extremely rare.

And so, this is just the strange cycle of Nylander and players from this mold. They can be frustrating, and even touchy, but when they’re in full bloom, they’re usually worth the effort. Nylander certainly is.

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