At the end of his first on-ice session of training camp, William Nylander skated slowly around his teammates stretching at centre ice and gave each of them a stick tap on the butt.
Then he ripped a few one-timers from the top of a faceoff circle and skated off the ice.
Since camp officially opened a day earlier, the 27-year-old has been the hot topic in Toronto, not only because he’s headed into a contract year after putting up career highs last season, but also because the Maple Leafs’ brass have decided to move Nylander from wing to centre.
“Oh, fun,” Nylander said, with a smile, of the switch to centre, while standing under a tent outside the Leafs’ practice facility in Toronto’s West end, wearing white sneakers, grey sweatpants, a black t-shirt and diamond-studded hoop earrings in both ears, his blonde hair slicked back.
“I’m excited. I mean, just happy to be back. And I told [coach] Sheldon [Keefe] wherever he wants me to play, I’ll play.”
On his contract, Nylander hasn’t wavered in his message either, and he also delivers this in a very laid-back fashion.
“You know what, I want to be here, and this is where I want to play,” he said, and he mentioned he’s letting his agent take care of the details, and he won’t be entertaining other questions about his contract. “I’ve only known Toronto, and this is the place I want to be.”
Keefe, for one, doesn’t think contract talks are going to get in the way of Nylander’s play.
“He’s extremely confident in himself, very focused. I would never describe Willy as distracted by anything,” the coach said.
“He’s going about his business and that’s exactly what I’ve seen since he’s come into town. Camp started yesterday, the first day on the ice today, I thought he was terrific in our skate to start with and really pushed things and led the way. I’m not concerned about really being able to focus on what we need him to do on the ice and I think he’s showing that very well here to start.”
To start things off Thursday, Keefe had players do a conditioning skate, which nobody liked, but which Nylander led as far as his own group, skating up and down the ice, over and over, until their legs felt like rubber. Players had a meeting afterwards, before starting actual practice.
The decision to slot Nylander between Domi and Jarnkrok made sense to Keefe.
“I just looked at the mix of guys there. Both Domi and Jarnkrok are two guys that have played centre and can take on some responsibilities low in the zone, if that’s the case, if need be, to support,” the coach said. “Domi is good on faceoffs, he can take left-handed faceoffs so it’s a good fit there. I think that Domi and Willie, they’re both really dynamic on the rush, you know [Domi] does a good job of getting to the net and getting over and getting available here, and you know he’s a worker, he does a lot of work defensively for the group, so the elements made sense to me that way.”
Nylander was drafted at centre back in 2014 and has seen some time at the position, but has never started an NHL season down the middle. As a kid, he says he wasn’t pushed to become a centreman and didn’t start playing the position until he was 15 or 16.
“It’s a little bit of an adjustment from winger. Now if I play throughout training camp and stuff and get games, I think it’ll help me adjust — and maybe they’ll put me back on the wing later,” he said.
Or, maybe they won’t. Domi doesn’t see a steep learning curve ahead.
“I won’t be an issue for him at all,” Domi said. “I mean, he’s such a good skater, right? Smart player. And I think all three of us have played centre at some point in this league and the game’s so fast nowadays that whoever is really first back — and that kind of changes from shift to shift, so whether it’s myself, Calle or Willie — you play low, and then kind of readjust from there.
“But he’s a guy that, you want him to have the puck and in the middle of the ice, and that makes great plays, and has an unbelievable shot.”
Nylander potted 40 goals with that shot last season, and had 87 points while playing on the wing.
His goal this year is to improve on those marks.
“Every year I just try to get better and better,” he said. “So, we’re going for a better year this year.”
And that’s that. Nylander might be the talk of camp so far, but all the contract and change in position talk doesn’t seem to rattle him one bit.
“Yeah, I mean, I’m just focusing on playing hockey,” he said.