Toronto Maple Leafs, William Nylander

Maple Leafs’ Dilemma: What to Do With William Nylander?

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For William Nylander, the season started well. He held out until the Toronto Maple Leafs capitulated with a huge $45 million contract. He threatened to boycott the season if his demands weren’t met. They were, so he signed.

The Trouble Began on the Ice

Then the problems began. Nylander had to back up his contract-defined value by performing on the ice and, he simply didn’t. Maple Leafs fans who, by and large, seemed to support him (or at least believed he was such a skilled star that they tolerated his hold-out) suddenly turned on him. Where once he was seen as young and elite, he was now considered young and entitled.

Toronto Maple Leafs' William Nylander
Toronto Maple Leafs’ William Nylander (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File)

Nylander probably believed he would play his way to sustained success, just like in seasons before but success never came. Nylander had some good games, but really not many. He ended the season with only 7 goals and 20 assists, in 54 games – that’s not what he was used to nor what the Maple Leafs had paid for.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Analysis: Babcock, Kadri, Marner, Nylander & Hyman

Sadly, his lack of success extended into the playoffs. The lowest point was when, after the season had ended, he was blamed by Brian Burke, in an interview with CBC’s Ron MacLean, for the Maple Leafs’ salary cap problems.

By the way, Burke also called Nylander’s play “highly ineffective” and “abysmal in the playoffs.” Burke also noted that his “presence didn’t help the Maple Leafs this year.” That evaluation might sound mean, however, considering Nylander’s numbers and the body of work he delivered throughout the season, there’s truth to the accusation.

Maple Leaf Fans Reacted Negatively

Maple Leafs fans reacted to Nylander’s poor play, and they turned on him as the season progressed. In a post where I supported Nylander, one fan mocked that support: “Don’t make me laugh. Nylander hasn’t done anything but float around the ice.”

Related: Should the Maple Leafs Trade Nylander for Simmonds?

Another fan suggested that Nylander was “the most self-centered player in the NHL.” The same fan added that all “Nylander really cares about … is being well paid.” In short, their patience had worn thin.

Problems with the Salary Cap

Now the Maple Leafs are facing a salary cap problem for next season. The current contracts and upcoming restricted free agents have put the team in a bind. The Maple Leafs desperately wish to sign team leader and Toronto-area player Mitch Marner. Will they be able to do so?

Tampa Bay Lightning Mikhail Sergachev Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner
Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Mikhail Sergachev trips up Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitch Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

One thing is sure, the team won’t be able to fit its contracts under the limit of the salary cap (estimated to be just under $84 million). As a result, choices must be made about who’ll stay and who’ll leave.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Swirling Rumors: Babcock, Johnsson, Marner & Moore

Specifically, the team has three players signed to very high salaries: John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Nylander. The team also has three young RFAs to sign – Marner, Andreas Johnsson, and Kasperi Kapanen. There’s not enough space for everyone. Something’s got to give. The question is what?

What Should the Maple Leafs Do?

In making a decision about
where the team should move from this difficult spot, outlining the facts might
be a good place to start.

Fact One: The Maple Leafs will have to find salary cap relief if the team wishes to sign their three RFAs. They must move some players or simply let them walk.

Fact Two: Nylander’s contract is a problem. When Dubas acquiesced to Nylander’s demands, it changed every contract the team will sign for years. Certainly, it increased Matthews’ contract and, it will make it more difficult to sign Marner.

Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander Boston Bruins Matt Grzelcyk
Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander controls the puck ahead of Boston Bruins Matt Grzelcyk. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

Fact Three: Nylander, if other teams consider this season an aberration, might have trade value. That might be especially true if another team came to believe he could become “their” primary star and leading scorer, which two years ago might have seemed more plausible.

Fact Four: Trading for Nylander would be risky. There’s no telling what his production might be. On his entry-level contact, he looked like a rising star and scored 20 goals two seasons in a row. Last year, he scored seven goals. He seemed to have great potential, but last season he fizzled. There’s an insufficient body of work to give a team a sense of what it’s getting with him.

Fact Five: Based on last season’s play, one Nylander isn’t worth one Johnsson + one Kapanen. Most teams, I believe, would jump at a chance to trade Nylander straight up for Johnsson and Kapanen. The Maple Leafs probably could make that trade right now. Specifically, the team could probably sign both young RFAs for a combined cap hit less than Nylander’s.

Fact Six: The Maple Leafs want to sign Marner. He led the team in scoring in two consecutive seasons (69 points in 2017-18 and 94 points in 2018-19). People knew he was good, but few fans would have believed he’d break 90 points or score more than Tavares or Matthews (who each earn more than $11 million per season).

Related: Maple Leafs’ Marner Negotiations: Welcome to Uglyville

Fact Seven: For several reasons, Dubas cannot risk a Marner hold out (like Nylander did). That’s one reason Dubas announced that signing Marner was his first priority once the season was over.

Can Nylander Be Traded?

Given these facts, I really see no better option than to trade Nylander – if it’s possible. His contract presents an on-going problem for the Maple Leafs because it takes up too much salary cap space.

Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander
Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Perhaps there’s a team out there with the cap space to eat Nylander’s contract. With top-end players now getting around $10 million per season, is it possible Nylander’s contract might soon seem cap friendly? Might another team see Nylander as becoming their team’s star?

If so, there might be a taker out
there. From my perspective, I hope there is.

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