2019 World Championship, Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs, William Nylander

William Nylander’s Redemption: Perhaps It’s Not Too Late

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Until the World Championships, it was only a good year
for William Nylander at the bank.

Fresh from signing a last-minute contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs that kept the young forward from sitting out the season, Nylander joined the team after the 2018-19 season started. But, he wasn’t ready to play at his old level and his season, like the team’s, ended in disappointment. The 2018-19 Maple Leafs were bumped from the Stanley Cup playoffs once again by their nemesis, the Boston Bruins.

Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander
Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander smiles as he speaks to the media regarding his new contract in Toronto on Monday, December 3, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

When reviewing Nylander’s season
from the perspective of what could have been, Maple Leafs fans are left with a
number of questions.

First, might the season have turned out differently if Nylander, who was previously one of the team’s brightest offensive stars, had been with the team the entire season or if he would have been physically ready to play when he arrived?

Second, was the 2018-19 one of those rare but missed opportunities when a young team has four young stars (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Andreas Johnsson, and Kasperi Kapanen) all on entry-level contracts?

Related – Maple Leafs’ Shanahan Re-Signed: The History of the Shanaplan

Third, what will the 2019-20
version of the Maple Leafs look like? Who from this season’s team will remain
on the roster when next season starts?

Nylander’s Poor Regular Season
and Poor Playoffs

Nylander’s season began with a prolonged contract dispute, was followed by a slow start, and eventually descended into an extended scoring malaise that affected his ice time and his position in the line-up. Very little went right for Nylander. His scoring was uncharacteristically down and his offensive melancholy lasted throughout the playoffs.

After two 61-point seasons in a row, he ended his season with seven goals, 20 assists, and 27 points in 54 games. He added three points in seven playoff games.

Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander Boston Bruins Tuukka Rask
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander and Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask watch the puck (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

In fact, hockey pundit Brian Burke blamed Nylander’s contract for the Maple Leafs’ salary cap problems and the pickle the team was in. Burke also evaluated Nylander’s play as “highly ineffective” and “abysmal in the playoffs” and noted that his “presence didn’t help the Maple Leafs this year.”

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

Nylander’s name also came up in trade rumors as fans and Maple Leafs commentators speculated about how Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas might build a viable hockey team in the face of its salary cap crunch.

I admit, I was one of those commentators. I suggested that the Maple Leafs should trade Nylander if it would allow the team to keep its two young RFAs Kapanen and Johnsson. My thoughts were that, given what I had seen of the Maple Leafs, those players together could be signed for what Nylander was making and they certainly, in tandem, were superior.

Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander and Detroit Red Wings Niklas Kronwall
Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander and Detroit Red Wings defenceman Niklas Kronwall (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

I also
admit that, being new to covering the Maple Leafs this season, I had not seen anything
close to the Nylander fans raved about when they advocated for him during his
early 2018-19 contract holdout.

Now that he’s tearing up the World Championships in scoring, I’m wondering. Could this be the Nylander fans were raving about?

Nylander’s Success at the World Championships

Nylander is leading all scorers at the World Championships. After seven games played, he has five goals and 12 assists for 17 points. Some might think that, if Sweden played countries like Liechtenstein (with a population under 40,000), anyone could score. However, although there are huge mismatches at these championships because some teams are loaded with NHL talent and some aren’t, every NHL star has the same chance to score against the same teams.

Related – NHL Rumors: Stars, Maple Leafs, Canadiens, More

Nylander has scored, and others haven’t. In fact, Nylander’s racking up points like no one else in tournament history (he’s on an almost 2.5 point-per-game pace). Although Sweden lost to Russia 7-4 on Tuesday afternoon, Nylander had a goal and an assist. He’s scoring against every team; and, he’s getting his swagger back.

Is Nylander’s
Lost Season Found?

It’s easy to blame Nylander for his lost season. But, not Dubas, who’s been beyond generous in taking the blame for Nylander’s troubled season. The first-year general manager admitted that the blame resided with “me and me alone.”

Dubas explained, “We didn’t get it done for training camp; we didn’t get it done to start the season; we didn’t get it done until there were three minutes left … It’s not acceptable. It didn’t set William up to have success.”

I’m only partly buying Dubas’ acceptance of the blame. It’s a class act and it further solidifies my belief that Dubas did, indeed, promise Nylander he wouldn’t be traded. It’s also a way to deflect blame and shield the young player from excess criticism. It’s also relationship-building and a wise way to proceed if you’re trying to build team loyalty.

That’s
good leadership, Kyle.

Coach Mike Babcock, too, has encouraged Nylander. Babcock, in talking about his 22-year-old forward, suggested that “Willy’s a proud guy, he’s a great kid and he has a chance to be a real good player.” But Babcock admitted, “He wasn’t a good player [this year], and no one wears that more than Willy.”

Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander
Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

His advice to Nylander was simple. “So he needs to get out of here, he needs to get home, he needs to get recharged, he needs to get training and get his game back on track and get his swagger back. … we need him to be a factor.”

Will
the World Championships Redeem Nylander’s Swagger?

After the regular season Nylander had, he needs to regain his own self-worth. If you’re a proud young man, as Babcock suggests he is, you wouldn’t hold out for so much money thinking there was any chance you would come back and stink up the joint.

Related – Maple Leafs’ Tyler Ennis: More Valuable Than Nylander?

For, as much as a polarizing figure Nylander was this season among Maple Leafs fans, he must have also been self-polarized. His poor play had to make him wonder who he really was as a player.

His public announcement that, “I know what I’m capable of doing. I know that Kyle knows what I’m capable of doing. This year didn’t show nearly to where I can be at as a player. I have higher expectations for myself moving forward.” is as much of an apology as one can expect from him.

If you are a Maple Leafs fan, it’s time to see what “I know I’m going to be way better,” really means for next season.

What About
Next Season?

Nylander’s season was far below everyone’s expectations. Perhaps his success at the World Championships will help him emerge from the huge weight he’s been under. He’s scoring better than any other NHL player who’s there. That fact alone must build his personal confidence.

Related: Potential Trade Targets for the Leafs’ Lacklustre Defence

His play in this tournament suggests Nylander should have some swagger back. Furthermore, it can’t hurt that his goalie Henrik Lundqvist has called him one of the best players in the world.

As Maple Leafs fans, we should be hoping Nylander keeps up this scoring pace. We should be celebrating Nylander’s success. Perhaps it’s not too late for him to win back Maple Leafs fans. Maybe he truly is that young star who was part of the team’s core only two seasons ago.

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