William Nylander’s Hot Start a Bright Spot for Maple Leafs

Last season was a nightmare for William Nylander. Through a rough contract negotiation and a stretch of particularly poor play, the only way things could have gone worse for the young player would have been to have not played at all. Now that the Toronto Maple Leafs have made it through 13 games this season, Nylander is showing that last season was an aberration and not the norm.

A Return to Form

While Nylander has generated a solid eight points to start the 2019-20 season, his improvements go beyond the scoresheet. He may not have been able to get his feet under him last season but that is not the case after the team’s start this season.

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

Nylander looks like himself again. He has been skating and puck-handling much better than he was a year ago and it has helped his game immensely. A number of times this season, he has been able to hang on to the puck in the offensive zone, skating around and giving his teammates the opportunity to get set. It is a night and day difference from last season when he was unable to ever get his feet under him.

A contributing factor to Nylander’s solid start is his return to Auston Matthews’ wing. Both players have played far better together than they have apart throughout their careers. He was understandably absent from Matthews’ line last season, as the star centre could not afford to be weighed down by an underperforming Nylander. Now that both players are healthy and prepared, putting them together makes all the sense in the world. So far, it has paid dividends for both of them.

Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
Nylander and Matthews (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Nylander is showing why he is worth the nearly $7 million per season contract that he signed last season. He has been one of the Maple Leafs most complete players this season and the more games that go by the better his contract looks. His performance last season earned him no new fans but given the chance to play a full preseason and start the season on time, Nylander has illustrated that he is more than what he showed in 2018-19.

2018-19 Woes

Nylander did himself no favours in 2018-19. His camp was embroiled in a contract negotiation that lasted all the way up to the RFA deadline on Dec. 1. He signed his contract at a $6.9 million AAV, meaning he gained little by holding out.

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)

By sitting out training camp, the preseason and the first 28 games of the regular season, Nylander put himself in a position with a very small chance of success. When he rejoined the Maple Leafs, he essentially gave the rest of the league a three-month head start. By doing so, he spent the remainder of the season playing catch-up.

As mentioned above, Nylander was unable to get his feet under him in 2018-19. He was not in game shape when he rejoined the team and it took until sometime in January to get up to speed. Even then, he was still several steps behind the rest of the league and it showed in his skating and his puck-handling. He made a number of costly mistakes, the most high profile of which came in the form of a turnover that led to a goal in Game 2 against the Boston Bruins.

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)

What resulted was the worst season of Nylander’s young career. He was limited to 7 goals and 20 assists in 54 games and had his role reduced to the third line. It was a situation that resulted in a season full of regret from Nylander, but now he is ready to make up for a disappointing 2018-19.