Maple Leafs Have to Answer the Nylander Issue

Kyle Dubas, Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs, William Nylander

There’s an old trick called controlling the narrative. Basically, you tell the story before someone else does. It’s time for the Toronto Maple Leafs to take control of the narrative around William Nylander. Or perhaps they already have?

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
Questions surround William Nylander after being benched (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

A few weeks ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach addressed benching players during games. “It’s not something I resort to all that often,” said Sheldon Keefe, “sometimes an in-game benching, while you’re sending a message to a certain player, it can also work against the team and its ability to win that particular game. So there’s a balance there as well.”

A message was sent to William Nylander. Apparently, Keefe was not concerned that benching Nylander would hinder the Maple Leafs. In fact, the opposite, as you’ll hear in this video.

After a wild and wide-open second period against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night, the Leafs had regained control of the game in the third. They restored the lead and were slowing the game down. But Nylander was not on the ice for the last eight minutes and 45 seconds. In fact, he logged the fourth-lowest amount of ice time with just 13 minutes and 55 seconds in Toronto’s 5-3 win.

Earlier in the week, a drawing of Nylander was on the front page of the Toronto Sun. It was accompanied by the quote, “William Nylander is like buying furniture from IKEA with the instructions somehow missing from the package.”

The next night he scored and had an assist. His numbers are good. He has 14 points in 19 games this season, and he had 59 points in 68 games last season. However, while talking about John Tortorella’s benching of players, Keefe may have given a clue to Saturday night’s incident. “It’s usually an accumulation of things.” Keefe said on February 9, “you don’t overact to one incident or one different thing. For me, it’s usually the end of a long line of events that have occurred with a lot of communication and discussion.”

Defensive Game Continues to Linger

Defensive play has been the most significant criticism of Nylander’s game since the Toronto Maple Leafs announced his name in the first round of the 2014 draft. Keefe has made it clear since taking over the team last season that improving his entire roster’s defensive play was his priority.

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

Despite having 235 points in 326 games, Nylander is only a plus 13 in his career. In his previous five seasons, he only has two where he finishes on the plus side. Obviously, those kinds of numbers back up the initial criticism. We also know that Keefe binge-watches the Leafs. We can say with near 100% certainty that there have been several defensive conversations between the two. That goes back to what Keefe said about benching players: usually the end of a long line of events that have occurred with a lot of communications and discussion.

The critics had more fuel when the Leafs and Nylander could not come to a deal until hours before the deadline during the 2018-19 season. He got just under seven million dollars a season. The same kind of money fellow 2014 draft pick David Pastrnak got from the Boston Bruins. The first piece of a promise general manager Kyle Dubas had made committing to signing all three “kids.” Those kids being Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. There’s been a lot of doubt around Dubas locking up 50% of cap space to those three forwards plus John Tavares. That said, he has put together the top team in the NHL – but could they be better?

Trade Rumours Ramping Up

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has been stoking the trade rumours for weeks. He started the “mystery player” search, and just recently, he reiterated that Toronto was looking for a top-six forward. When Dubas traded two contracts away for Alex Galchenyuk, it appeared a trade may be closer. NHL teams can only have 50 contracts, Toronto is now at 46. But there is a twist, Friedman believes this forward is to help two of Toronto’s slumping stars. “I think Toronto is looking for another winger,” said Friedman on the Fan 590, “I just think they are trying to find someone else to play with Tavares and Nylander and see if they can unlock something a bit more.”

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

To find that type of player would be exceedingly tricky given Toronto’s cap space. This leads many to believe one of the big contracts must be at play. Tavares has a no-movement clause, and Matthews and Marner are not going anywhere. Why would Toronto need four open contract slots while not having cap space? Plus Wayne Simmonds will be back at the end of March.

More Questions than Answers

There’s one other minor fact to point out. This goes way more on the soap opera side than the hockey side – Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen were close friends. It was no surprise when Kapanen was traded. It was stated that it was for salary cap reasons. Sure it helped on that front, but Kapanen was publicly shamed by Keefe for being late to practice. He had fallen out of favour with Keefe, and it seemed the relationship could not be salvaged.

Now the same very public problem hangs over Nylander and the Leafs. Is Toronto controlling the narrative and laying the foundations for why Nylander should go while sparring Dubas from eating crow? That’s a double-edged sword, as downplaying Nylander’s abilities also hurts his trade value. Or, is the narrative that Keefe is doing his best to get Nylander’s 200-foot game to where it needs to be? In recent weeks we’ve seen hockey executives address criticisms around their teams. It may be time for Toronto to do the same.