Maple Leafs’ William Nylander Evolving Into Fan Favorite in Toronto

Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander has gone from being Leafs Nation’s whipping boy to winning over their hearts. He’s been front and center for all the wrong reasons and slowly made his way to the other end of the spectrum after an impressive season. It’s now safe to say, Nylander is a fan favourite in Toronto.

After tallying 42 points in 51 games during the regular season, it was in the postseason against the Montreal Canadiens that Nylander turned it on. It wasn’t just his production; it was his compete level, which is likely what impressed fans the most. The former first-round pick has been criticized for his work ethic during his entire tenure with the Maple Leafs, and not one person could chirp him after his performance against the Canadiens.

Toronto Maple Leafs centre William Nylander
Nylander was a force during the Maple Leafs’ first-round series against the Canadiens (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

After John Tavares was hit in the head by Canadiens forward Corey Perry, many wondered if Toronto’s second line could hold the team together. With the wild-card Alex Galchenyuk on left-wing and Nylander on the right, Alexander Kerfoot moved up a line and, let’s just say, it didn’t matter because Nylander took over. Not only did he lead the team in postseason goals with five and points with eight, his compete level was through the roof. He became a different player in those seven games, and after five years of criticism from some fans, that all changed in the playoffs.

Contract Negotiations Turned Some Against Him

After a decent season in 2017-18 with 61 points in 82 games, Nylander became a restricted free agent, and his contract status made headlines. His agent played hardball, and general manager Kyle Dubas didn’t want to cave. It wasn’t until the eleventh hour of the December deadline, and after missing 26 games of the regular season, Nylander signed on the dotted line. Leafs Nation are=thankful he did, but it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows that season. 

After training with a junior team in his native Sweden, Nylander eventually made his way to Toronto and into the lineup on Dec. 6. He didn’t score in his first 11 games and only recorded two assists. Some questioned his conditioning, but the problem was that he was working out too much, spending more time lifting weights than skating at NHL speed. When he finally showed up that season, he was not only late, but he wasn’t in “hockey shape.” The season was a wash for Nylander, who finished with 27 points in 54 games. He’s been a much more productive player ever since.

Annual Salary vs Production Puts Nylander in Elite Group

Dubas structured Nylander’s contract in such a way that the first season was the most expensive, at $10.2 million, with a lower average annual value for the next five, at $6.9 million. Once Leafs Nation got over the fact that a $10 million player hadn’t scored much, his contract became one of his best features. Only a handful of high profile forwards in the NHL, who are 25 or younger, make $6.5-$7 million per season:

  • Matthew Barzal, New York Islanders
  • David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
  • Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames
  • Patrik Laine, Columbus Blue Jackets
  • Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning
  • William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs

While the list is stacked with big names, some don’t realize that Nylander fits in with them. Of that group, he ranked third last season in points-per-game and first in individual expected goals per 60 minutes. Everyone on the list plays on their team’s top-line, Nylander plays behind Mitch Marner on the Maple Leafs’ second line. He also ranks at the very bottom in ice time among the group, at 16:36 per night, and the closest player plays almost a minute more. Even though fans hated his contract initially, Nylander is solid in terms of production versus his annual salary. For all those who think Dubas isn’t a good negotiator, there isn’t much to say about this contract anymore.

Lots of Questions Heading into the 2021-22 Season

The Maple Leafs’ roster will likely look very different come opening night in October. However, Nylander is set to return with Tavares on the second line. If Zach Hyman leaves, even though I predict he stays, some wonder if Nylander would be moved up to either play with Marner and Auston Matthews or replace Marner on the team’s top line. Regardless, finding Nylander more ice time in 2021-22 should be head coach Sheldon Keefe‘s priority. 

Nylander Matthews Maple Leafs CP
Nylander deserves more ice-time with Auston Matthews next season (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

There are questions about whether Nylander can carry his postseason performance into next season, and the spotlight will be back on #88 when the campaign begins. Let’s hope he carries the momentum from their first-round series when he scored in four straight games and became a completely different player. If he maintains that compete level and drives to the net more, he will become a point-per-game player. Getting more ice-time won’t hurt and expect him to be relied on more next season.

There’s a reason his name comes up in every Maple Leafs’ trade rumour linked to another star. Nylander is on the cusp of becoming one of the best players in the NHL, and Leafs Nation is going to love every single minute of it when that happens. 

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