Maple Leafs’ William Nylander’s Award-Winning, Turnaround Season

During the 2018-19 offseason, after William Nylander’s poor season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, his reputation sunk so low that, in response to an article I wrote about his good play with Team Sweden at the 2019 World Championships, one fan put it bluntly:

“He has got to go, he may be scoring up a storm at the hockey tournament, but will he do the same when playing with ALL the big boys? I don’t think so, he is a “me-me” man, who likes to hog the puck and constantly loses it. (I’ve) watched too many games with him charging down the ice and nothing happens. TRADE HIM…”

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How things have changed.

Nylander Named the PHWA’s Comeback Player

Half a year later, Nylander was named the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association’s (PHWA) mid-season winner of the comeback player of the year, given “to the player who returned to a previous high level of performance that was interrupted by subpar play, long-term injury or major illness.”

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There’s no denying that Nylander’s 2018-19 play was “subpar”. After he signed a last-second, early-December contract, he returned to the Maple Leafs but he scored only seven goals and 27 points in 54 games last season after his protracted contract holdout.

This season is so different, with 23 goals and 45 points in 50 games.

Nylander’s Poor Last Season

Until the World Championships, Nylander was in a huge funk. His poor season was mirrored by his team, and the Maple Leafs were bumped from the Stanley Cup Playoffs again by their nemesis the Boston Bruins in the first round.

Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander Boston Bruins Matt Grzelcyk
Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander controls the puck ahead of Boston Bruins Matt Grzelcyk (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

Nylander’s season, after the contract dispute was resolved, was followed by a poor start that descended into an extended scoring malaise. Very little went right, and his slump lasted into the playoffs. After two consecutive 61-point seasons, his value and role on the team sank to an all-time low.

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To steal the icing from the cake, in April 2019, hockey pundit Brian Burke blamed Nylander’s contract for the Maple Leafs’ salary cap problems. Furthermore, he called Nylander’s play “highly ineffective,” “abysmal in the playoffs,” and noted that his “presence didn’t help the Maple Leafs this year.” Nylander’s name even popped up in trade rumors.

Turnaround Began at the World Championships

The IIHF 2019 World World Championships changed everything. In eight games, Nylander set the tournament on fire, scoring five goals and 13 assists. His 18 points beat out other great NHL players such as Russia’s Nikita Kucherov and the Czech Republic’s Jakub Voracek, who each had 16 points in two more games than Nylander.

Nylander racked up points like no one else in tournament history and got his swagger back. He returned to the Maple Leafs determined to dominate.

Nylander is Proud and Competitive

There’s no doubt that Nylander needed to regain his confidence. In a recent interview with Sportsnet’s Luke Fox, John Tavares noted that Nylander was, “Very competitive, and he’s very knowledgeable in the game. To me, he’s still growing and learning and continuing to find how he can get better. And I think he’s very driven. He wants to be a great player and make a difference every night and be counted on and help this team be successful.”

Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander
Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Taking Tavares’ comments at face-value, Nylander’s poor play had to weigh heavily on him. During the offseason, Nylander announced that the 2018-19 season didn’t show what kind of a player he was and he had higher expectations for himself moving forward. He even changed his jersey number.

Nylander’s Recent Play

Life isn’t always smooth, and this season, against the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 21, head coach Sheldon Keefe showed Nylander some tough love and benched him for being uninvolved on the backcheck. Nylander took the lesson to heart and, since that game, he’s been on fire.

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In Monday night’s 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators, Nylander scored a goal and an assist. In Wednesday night’s 5-3 win over the Dallas Stars, he scored a goal. The Stars game marked the sixth of a six-game point-scoring streak, including a goal in each of the last five games. In fact, he now has 13 goals in his last 16 games. It looks like he’s put the struggle of a seven-goal, 27-point 2018-19 season behind him.

Nylander Matthews Maple Leafs CP
Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews and William Nylander (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

His goal against the Stars was his 24th of the season, a new career-high. Furthermore, he has 46 points in 51 games – which is closing in on a point-a-game pace. Unless he’s injured, there seems only a small chance that Nylander won’t better his 61-point pace from each of the two seasons before last season’s tank job.

Building Upon His World Championship Success

Nylander’s 2018-19 season was far below everyone’s expectations – especially his own. It seems safe to suggest that his success at the World Championships helped him emerge from the pressure he’d been under. During the World Championships, teammate Henrik Lundqvist called Nylander one of the best players in the world.

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That’s high praise, but Nylander’s 2019-20 season suggests Lundqvist is close to right. There’s no doubt that he has gained back his scoring ability and the support of Maple Leafs fans. I can’t imagine anyone is calling for him to be traded this week.

Nylander’s resurgence couldn’t come at a better time if the Maple Leafs are to gain a playoff spot. They are only two points out as of Thursday.