The most polarizing Toronto Maple Leaf in 2018-19 was William Nylander. He entered the season as an unsigned restricted free agent, seemingly content to wait as long as possible to get the contract he felt he deserved.
It was the biggest storyline of his career thus far. Nylander’s decision to holdout will be his legacy unless he is able to rebound in the coming season. The decision to not play reached far beyond December and affected his entire season negatively. Here we will take all of that into account, analyze his play and assign him a final grade for the 2018-19 season.
Game of Chicken
When Kyle Dubas took over as Maple Leafs general manager, he made a point to say that he would keep Toronto’s core together. When asked if he could re-sign Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, Dubas responded, “we can and we will”. His first task was re-signing Nylander.
The two sides were unable to come to terms as they went back and forth on salary. As time went on, Nylander remained unsigned. July 1 came, no Nylander. Training camp, preseason games and the home opener all came and went without Nylander having joined the team. The holdout lasted until a half-hour before the deadline when the game of chicken came to an end.
There were times that it seemed like progress was being made, such as Dubas flying to Switzerlandto meet with Nylander in person. Despite the fans’ hope, a deal appeared no closer after the meeting. Finally, Nylander called Dubas and asked if he wanted to get a deal done. Shortly afterwards, he was signed and on his way to rejoin his team. His 2018-19 cap hit was inflated due to signing during the season, but the contract worked out to be $6.9 million per year for six years.
The holdout soured fans on Nylander. After signing John Tavares, this was supposed to be the season that the Maple Leafs could reach their full offensive potential. With Nylander out of the lineup, the team’s offence was unable to operate at that level. The team attained decent success without him, accumulating an 18-8-0 record prior to his signing on Dec. 1.
Whether or not Nylander ended up getting a contract that he felt was appropriate is irrelevant. In the context of the 2018-19 season, holding out for his contract cost him two months worth of production. This puts a huge damper on his season as a whole because who knows just how much more dangerous the Leafs offence could have been with Nylander there the whole time.
The Rest of the Season
Nylander’s contract situation not only cost him the first two months of his season but hampered his ability to perform at his highest level going forward as well.
He was keeping himself in shape in Switzerland during the holdout but doing drills with a local team can only help so much. By the time Nylander rejoined the Leafs, every player in the NHL had participated in their training camps, had a chance to play in preseason games, and finally play two months of regular season hockey.
Playing with a team in Switzerland cannot possibly fully prepare someone to jump into the NHL mid-season. By not being with the team at the start of training camp, Nylander had to try to play at an elite level in December at the drop of a hat. His play suffered as a result, leading to Nylander totalling seven goals and 20 assists in 54 games. This roughly works out to a 41 point pace if he had played all 82 games. That would be well below the 61 point threshold that he had reached in his previous two seasons. Simply, it was not good enough.
Nylander himself acknowledged thisat the end of the season. He stated that he, “[wished he] would have been there from the beginning”. He knew his performance was not good enough and the fans knew it too. As time went on, fans grew irritated with Nylander’s poor play. After waiting months for a contract to be signed, the wait for him to play like himself continued. Truthfully, the wait will continue until he takes the ice again in 2019-20, as he never got on track last season.
Having spent the majority of the prior two seasons as a winger on Matthews’ line, it was expected by many that Nylander would rejoin the top line after he got the rust off. That never really happened. Instead, he spent time on Nazem Kadri’s wing and as the Maple Leafs’ third-line centre when injuries plagued the team. Head coach Mike Babcock seemed reluctant to put Nylander with Matthews this season. It is something of a chicken-and-the-egg scenario. Babcock may not have wanted to put him on the top line due to his lack of production, but it is possible that being kept away from his partner greatly reduced his potential productivity.
Overall Grade: D-
The only way for Nylander to have scored a lower grade this season would have been to have sat out. Holding out may have secured him a few extra dollars but that decision greatly impacted his production this season. If he could go back and do it all over he would have been at training camp, as noted above. It would have allowed him to get the proper preparation needed to compete at a high level in the NHL.
The World Championships offered Nylander achance at redemption following this most disappointing season. It cannot be taken into account when determining a grade for his 2018-19 season, but it is a perfect illustration that he still has far more to give to his team.
He has stated that he is ready to dominate next season after the worst season of his young career. The 2019-20 season will be the chance for Nylander to put last season in his rearview mirror for good. If he is able to continue to develop his game, his contract could end up being one of the best value deals in the NHL. All of that will be up to Nylander as the 23-year-old holds his fate in his own hands going forward.
As described by our own Chris Faria, he is better than he showed last season. Next season is a perfect time for a bounce-back performance because, after 2018-19, the only way to go is up.