Why William Nylander's best year for Maple Leafs comes with questions

Toronto Maple Leafs winger William Nylander (88) celebrates. (Frank Gunn/CP)

"When he’s goin’, he’s goin’, right?"
—Auston Matthews on William Nylander

TAMPA – What would Willy do?

It’s hard to argue that we all wouldn’t be a little better served by being a little more like William Nylander.

Most of us stew over our mistakes. We labour over what we should have done better. Our flaws bury into our brains like a disease and have us second-guessing ourselves. We’re prone to kill our confidence by a thousand self-inflicted lashes.

Sure, we’d like the negative noise to bead off our backs like lake water off duck feathers. We’d prefer the good to glisten like thick golden hair waving hi under a Louis Vuitton toque.

But, for the vast majority — the insecure masses – such a laissez faire approach to our lives or our careers either doesn’t come naturally or doesn’t come at all.

William Nylander — a.k.a. ”Willy Styles,” check the stick rack — is a unique breed. He comes off too beautiful to care.

Nylander will take those extra few minutes to shower or flip the drip right, because, hey, they can wait. Or not. Either way, he’ll be straight.

On Sunday he swore he’d already hit a career high of 34 goals even though, in reality, his career-best 32nd goal didn’t arrive until Tuesday. He laughed off the clerical error. Ah, well, he’d get it right next time.

Talk to anyone in Nylander’s orbit, and confident is one of the first descriptors you’ll hear. It’s said with admiration and speckled with a hint of envy.

One night, he’ll enter the offensive zone on a rolled-out red carpet. The next, he’ll backcheck with all the urgency of Wesley Snipes getting to his taxes.

First on the ice; last out the salon.

A coach’s dream; a coach’s nightmare.

“He’s smooth. That’s one thing,” says new Leaf Colin Blackwell, in admiration. “It just seems like no matter what situation in the game, he's just so smooth out there. Calm and collected.

"And he's able to make a lot of great plays and make a lot of people around him better players, too, and put them in good situations. It’s kind of that vision on the ice. Whenever he has the puck, he's a threat-type of thing, and I think you can learn a lot from watching him.”

Of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Core Four, no star is more securitized or less paid. More fiercely defended or harshly criticized. More celebrated when he’s on fire or dogged when his blade has turned to ice.

At once, Nylander is uniformly consistent — posting a career-high 76 points through 76 games — and wildly erratic.

Talk to those around the team, and Nylander could be voted “Most Likely to Break Out in the Playoffs” and “Most Likely to Get Traded When They’re Over.”

Who else in the sport wears nonchalance and paradox like a bespoke suit?

Here’s a theory: William Nylander is increasingly relishing these wee windows when he’s not relegated to fourth fiddle.

When he’s called on to be the guy, he delivers — on the ice and at the podium.

“It's been like that for a few games now. He's moving his feet. He's just been a real difference-maker,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, praising his substitute power-play triggerman. “More importantly, his skating on both sides of the puck has been really good. With Auston’s absence, we need guys to step up — and he certainly has done that.”

Nylander was the Maple Leafs’ best and most productive player in their 2021 playoff collapse to the Montreal Canadiens.

He was virtually criticism-proof while his mainstay peers absorbed bullets. And this week, with Auston Matthews stepping back to heal an undisclosed injury, Nylander has glistened in the spotlight.

In Toronto’s past 10 games when Nylander had been in the lineup and Matthews has not, the winger has six goals, 15 points and five multi-point efforts as his team has gone 9-1-0.

A reporter apologized Tuesday for posing another question to goalie Jack Campbell about the silky Swede.

“I'd love to keep bringing up Willy, because that means he’s dominating,” Campbell said, smiling. “He's just such a dynamic player and such a big part of our team. And when he's rolling, it's pretty tough to stop him. So, whatever he's been doing, hopefully he just keeps ’er going — because it's fun to watch back there.”

Lifelong hockey student Jason Spezza agreed.

“Will’s a guy who’s played real well in playoffs the whole course of his career,” Spezza said. “We all know when he's on his game, he's tough to stop. He's relentless on pucks, and I think his game is ramping up in the right direction.”

When he’s going …

When he’s rolling …

When he’s on …

Compliments for Nylander almost always come parcelled with a qualifier.

Which is why it was rare and illuminating to hear no-flies-on-me Nylander — wearer of Toronto’s green jacket at minus-11 — cop to some harsh self-evaluation this week.

During Nylander’s winter slump that saw him drop to third-line duties, he picked two games at random form earlier in this season, when he was buzzing, and studied his shift. Then he compared those efforts to two more recent games.

A discrepancy sunk in.

“Just saw the difference in my game. Just saw that I was skating more, a bit more focused on that part of my game. Just in all situations, I was a bit off,” Nylander admitted, sounding humble, relatable.

“I was kinda pissed and get back to the way I can play.”

The results speak volumes, and the enigma is rounding into form at the perfect time of year.

Nylander keeps bumping his career highs as he explodes for 17 points in his past 11 games.

“Video doesn’t lie,” said Campbell, who routinely analyzes the good, bad and ugly. “It’s a pretty mental game. You have to be a pro and study your game.”

When this independent-study anecdote is relayed to Keefe, the coach strikes the tone of a teacher who has been marking B+ papers from an A+ student for three semesters.

“In Will’s case, it just shows he's focused on his game and knows he has more to offer. It's no secret. We've talked to him about this, and he knows this. But sometimes going back and watching a game, you can really see it — and it can spark something for you,” Keefe said.

“Coaches or teammates or whatever can talk to you and all that. But maybe sometimes you need to reflect a little bit and get after it yourself. So whichever way it's coming together, certainly he’s back in a groove here. No better time to do it than this time of year, as we’re right around the corner from doing this for real.”

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