In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll look at William Nylander’s desire to carry over his stellar season into the postseason. I’ll also make a case for Auston Matthews to be a candidate for the Lady Byng Trophy, and I’ll ask which Frederik Andersen might show up during the postseason.
Item One: Where Was William Nylander Before Phase 2 and 3?
It was easy enough to keep up with Auston Matthews or John Tavares during the NHL’s hiatus, but if you were looking for William Nylander, it was like he disappeared. Earlier this week, Nylander was interviewed by the media for the first time since the season was suspended in early March.
Where was he? He had holed up with his brother Alexander in Florida. The 24-year-old William and 22-year-old Alexander, who also plays right-wing but with the Chicago Blackhawks, spent the first two months of the pandemic together.
As the elder Nylander brother tells it, “It was a lot of fun. It had been a long time since we spent that much time together. We were playing video games and tennis every day. We played probably about 45 matches and I think he was up one or two.”
Nylander also spoke about his need to show up during this season’s playoffs: “That’s where all the big players show up … I think … my game this year will help me become a dominant player in the playoffs.”
Funny, Nylander also used the word “dominant” in an interview just before to the start of the 2019-20 season, after he had rediscovered his confidence playing for Team Sweden and leading the IIHF World Hockey Championships in scoring last May. He even changed his number to #88 — a number he’d worn with Sodertalje in HockeyAllsvenskan — and vowed his upcoming season would be improved. It was.
Last August, Nylander noted: “Last year’s just gone. Out of the books, really, except for maybe taking some stuff that I learned. I look forward to dominating.”
After scoring 31 goals and 59 points in 68 games during the regular season, he will work to prove himself in the postseason, where he’s only scored three goals in 20 career NHL playoff games. It looks like he’ll be given a chance to improve. So far, during training camp, he’s played on a dominant line with Matthews and Zach Hyman.
Item Two: Auston Matthews Named a Finalist for the Lady Byng Trophy
Speaking of Matthews, yesterday he was named a finalist for the 2019-20 Lady Byng Trophy along with the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon and the St. Louis Blues’ Ryan O’Reilly. The Lady Byng is perhaps the most underrated NHL award, that’s given annually to the player who best combines sportsmanship, gentlemanly conduct, and a high level of overall play.
Matthews has a good case to win the trophy. He was on his way to a career season, although he’s already had three successful seasons. During 2019-20, he scored 47 goals in 70 games before the NHL was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He reached a career-high in goals and ranked second in the NHL. He also scored a career-high 80 points and would have likely come close to 100 had the season not been stopped.
The ever-improving young player was also only penalized four times for eight penalty minutes all season, a career-low.
In Lady Byng voting last year, Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers won, with Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly finishing fourth and Matthews finishing eighth.
Should Matthews win the trophy, he’d join several other Maple Leafs winners. Maple Leafs players have won the Lady Byng nine times. The most recent winner was Alexander Mogilny in 2003. Others include Joe Primeau (1932), Gordie Drillon (1938), Syl Apps (1942), Sid Smith (1952 and 1955), Red Kelly (1961), and Dave Keon (1962 and 1963).
Item Three: Can Frederik Andersen Prove His Value This Postseason?
When the Maple Leafs play the Columbus Blue Jackets during the best-of-five play-in round, Toronto has the advantage. Few NHL teams can match the elite forwards the Maple Leafs can ice. Goaltender Frederik Andersen should also have the edge over the Blue Jackets duo of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.
Rory Boylen wrote about Andersen in yesterday’s Sportsnet’s newsletter (which I encourage fans to subscribe to). He noted the big goalie’s consistency, pointing to a save percentage that’s hovered around .918 during his first three seasons with the team. Boylen also blamed Andersen’s dip this season to “extenuating circumstances in front of him.”
He also noted that, when Andersen gets into a groove, he’s one of the best goalies in the NHL. However, he also pointed to Andersen’s numbers coming out of the gate. They are Boylen wrote, “consistently sour.” During his four Octobers with the team, Andersen has only recorded a .900 save percentage.
Boylen reminded fans that, by the time the Maple Leafs enter the play-in round, teams will have been off for four months or the length of a regular offseason.
Then, Boylen asked THE question: which version of Andersen will the Maple Leafs see in goal? Will it be a fresh, healthy goaltender who’s playing at the peak of his game or will it be the October-version of Andersen who struggles?
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Other than which Andersen will show up, the strength of the Maple Leafs’ defense remains in question. When you look at each team’s advantage, the Blue Jackets have the edge on defense with All-Stars Seth Jones and Zach Werenski on their blue line. They also can ice veterans David Savard and Ryan Murray.
At least for this season, the Blue Jackets’ foursome has fared better than the Maple Leafs’ foursome of Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie, and Cody Ceci. That’s a group that has been hammered by injuries and general inconsistency.
That match-up will be interesting to see during the play-in series.