TORONTO — If William Nylander ever decides to give up his hockey career he might consider a move to Las Vegas.
“I haven’t played that much poker but maybe I should give it a try,” said Nylander with a laugh on Monday night, two days after the 22-year-old winger re-signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, ending a months-long contract holdout that sometimes resembled a high-stakes game of Texas hold ’em.
Nylander and Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas agreed to a US$6.9 million six-year deal less than an hour before Saturday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline. Dubas filed the official paperwork with the NHL and players’ association with minutes to spare, officially ending the impasse.
“If I’m sitting here right now saying that with 45 minutes left and he’s not signed that I had no concern, then I’m a liar,” said Dubas, laughing. “Yes, there was concern.”
Nylander’s entry-level contract expired on July 1 and negotiations stretched through the summer and into the season, ultimately forcing him to miss a third of Toronto’s 2018-19 campaign. Although the two sides had been in regular contact, things didn’t get moving until the 11th hour when Nylander called Dubas to get a deal done.
“It was getting into the last 40 minutes before the deadline and I was talking to my agent and I said ‘let’s just call him,’ and I think that phone call really got everything done,” said Nylander.
Nylander is coming off back-to-back 61-point seasons, including 20 goals and 41 assists in 2017-18. The Calgary-born Swede has 48 goals and 87 assists for 135 points in 185 career games. He also has two goals and six assists in 13 post-season appearances.
Coming into this season, he was considered a top-six forward for the Maple Leafs. But Toronto has thrived without him, compiling a 19-8-0 record that puts it near the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
His teammates, who were in St. Paul, Minn., to play the Wild on Saturday night, anxiously watched the deadline approach.
“I was checking my Twitter feed probably every 15 seconds, that’s for sure,” said Kasperi Kapanen, who was Nylander’s roommate last season. “Obviously kind of went down to the wire there and I was getting nervous a bit but once it was done it was a good feeling.”
Nylander’s return raises two important questions for the Maple Leafs.
The first is an immediate one: what line will he play on now that he’s back? Kapanen has stepped up in his absence and been effective on a line with Auston Matthews and veteran Patrick Marleau, putting away 10 goals and eight assists in 27 games, all career highs.
Head coach Mike Babcock was tight-lipped with media about his line combinations on Monday and both Nylander and Kapanen admitted they were in the dark too.
“Good question,” said Kapanen when asked about a possible line change. “Nothing for sure right now. Obviously, the team’s been playing well and we’ve got to stay focused on what we’re doing right now and keep playing.”
The second question is a financial one, as Nylander’s signing makes for a potentially difficult situation for Dubas as he tries to fit his young stars’ salaries under the league’s hard salary cap.
Matthews, who won the 2017 Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year, Kapanen, and Mitch Marner, who leads the team with 38 points (six goals, 22 assists) are all due to become free agents at the same time. That is on top of superstar forward John Tavares’s seven-year deal worth $11 million per season that was signed this past summer.
“We know that in this market there’s always going to be a lot of questions about it. I think the players have handled it very very well,” said Dubas. “We have some restricted free agents, we have some looming unrestricted free agents, I think it’s a fortunate position that we’re in that we have these talented players that are part of our organization.
“We’ve already begun those conversations and we’ll continue them with the ambition of having them concluded as soon as possible.”
Nylander’s teammates were all happy to see him get compensated with a lucrative and lengthy contract.
“When I saw him I did the make-it-rain dance on him,” said Marner. “Just gave him a hug, said congrats on the new contract. We’re all excited to have him back here. He’s a big part of this team.”
Nylander completed medical evaluations on Monday morning, forcing him to miss practice. Toronto plays in Buffalo on Tuesday. He wasn’t sure if he would be ready to join the team on Thursday in Detroit or on Saturday in Boston.
Follow @jchidleyhill on Twitter
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press