With the noise surrounding William Nylander and his contract thankfully ending Monday, the next questions concern hockey.
As in just how long will it be before Nylander a) makes his season debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs and b) returns to his old spot at right wing beside Auston Matthews?
It definitely will not be for Tuesday night’s showdown in Buffalo against the Sabres, the most surprising team in the NHL this season. But it could come as soon as Thursday when the Maple Leafs face the Detroit Red Wings at home.
Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was short on specifics other than saying, “We’ll get him in action as fast as we can.”
Nylander did not practise on Monday, his first official day with the team since agreeing to a six-year contract worth US$45-million minutes ahead of Saturday’s NHL deadline for restricted free agents to sign for this season. He spent the day being looked over by the Leafs’ medical staff but indicated later to reporters he expects to play right away.
“Now, I’m kind of coming into training camp,” Nylander said. “The start of any season is going to take a few games to get back in the swing of things. Otherwise I feel like I’m in great shape. I came in to play.”
In other words, NHLers start playing preseason games a few days after they show up for training camp. So there’s no reason Nylander, who spent the first two months of the season variously skating on his own, with an Austrian pro team and a Swedish junior team, does not expect to be in the lineup Thursday night.
Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas cleared a spot on the roster for Nylander by trading forward Josh Leivo to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday for minor-league forward Michael Carcone. Since Leivo, who never cracked the Leafs lineup regularly until this season when Nylander was out because of the contract negotiations, was shipped out this quickly, it indicates Nylander will be playing shortly.
Babcock had nothing to say about where in the lineup Nylander will find himself. “Yep,” was the reply when the coach was asked if he had thought about it. But when it came to sharing his thoughts, the answer was “nope.”
One thing that can be assumed is Babcock will follow his usual practice when it comes to players returning to the lineup after a long absence. All front-line players not named Auston Matthews generally find themselves with a game or two on the fourth line before they are considered up-to-speed. The Leafs’ fourth line happens to have a vacancy due to the Leivo trade.
The interesting part about Nylander rejoining Matthews is that his best friend on the team has done a bang-up job filling in for him. Kasperi Kapanen showed he has the speed and the moves to play with the big boys. He has 10 goals and eight assists in 27 games this season, most of them as Nylander’s replacement.
For his part, Kapanen is just happy his good buddy Nylander is back in town. “Now that that’s over, we can just focus on the season,” Kapanen said.
For those wondering if he was worried about what happens to him in a few games, Kapanen said, “No, not at all. Good question. Nothing is for sure right now. I think as we go along we have to focus on what we’re doing right now and keep playing.”
Right now, Patrick Marleau is at left wing on the Matthews line. One line of thinking goes that Babcock will simply drop Kapanen down to the third line with centre Nazem Kadri and plug Nylander back into his old right-wing slot.
However, there is the possibility of both Kapanen and Nylander playing with Matthews. Babcock likes to have one digger on every skill line and he has spoken often this season of how he wants Kapanen to play a more physical game.
Kapanen is playing a more aggressive style when it comes to chasing the puck, so the move is possible. He said Monday he has played left wing before and is comfortable doing so. Besides, Marleau and Kadri usually work well together.
Finally, there is the question of just how long Nylander will be with the Leafs, given how long and difficult the negotiations were and just how trade-friendly his new contract is. From years two through six, the salary-cap hit is US$6.9-million, while the actual salary paid is much less, which is an attractive proposition for a lot of teams should Nylander prove disappointing or the Leafs decide their need for other assets is greater.
Nylander said he never thought about playing anywhere else during the talks because all he’s ever wanted to be is a Maple Leaf. Dubas was equally adamant.
“I think I’ve been on the record saying that,” Dubas said. “It’s our intention to have him here as long as we possibly can. And [the same applies] with all of our young players.”