Ten games in and you already know the deal with this year’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Somewhere around 105 points, second to Boston in the Atlantic, play Tampa in the first round. Am I getting warm?
The main storylines won’t change – exponential offence, zero defence, tough guys nobody’s scared of, two so-so goalies and William Nylander.
Now in his ninth year in Toronto, Nylander serves one purpose – to make the Leafs fan in your life bug out their eyes and come halfway of their chair at the mention of his name. He is the Guy Fieri of hockey. Though not everyone watches his show, they all have strong feelings about him.
Two weeks into 2023-24, those feelings are fear-based. Would anyone argue with the proposition that, right at this moment, Nylander is the best Leaf and that it’s not really close?
He’s put up points in every game. More than that, there’s the eye test. Auston Matthews looks dangerous when he’s in his spots. Nylander looks dangerous everywhere.
Of all the places Nylander looks dangerous right now, he must be most terrifying when sitting across a table from a Leafs executive.
What’s he worth right now? Ten million bucks a year? Twelve? You can’t pay him more than Matthews’s new deal (US$13.25-million a year), but who’s to say he won’t ask for $10 less than that?
If he’d left a few years ago, the fan base would have found the bright side – ‘Now we can hire two geriatric defencemen who can’t keep up when it matters.’
But today? People would flip. It would be a signal of decline and an evergreen excuse for all those who remain.
Except Nylander’s not going to leave. Why would he? He’s never going to have it this easy anywhere else.
Asked about his contract status over the summer, Nylander parroted Matthews’s line – “I want it to work where I can stay [in Toronto] and be there. … There’s no other place I want to play.”
For a guy who’s driving the contract bus, it’s a strange thing to say. It was a strange line for Matthews to take as well. You can press your point without upsetting people – just be a little more vague.
Like Matthews, Nylander can make more money elsewhere. On 20 NHL teams, he’s the No. 1 guy, instead of No. 3 or 4. Imagine Nylander in New York or L.A. – whole new marketing worlds would open up to him. If he has the ambition and drive, he could be the next Ron Duguay or Henrik Lundqvist. Something more than a hockey star – a real media player.
On the other hand, he can stay where he is, still make a packet, hide in the herd and keep on doing what he’s been doing.
In the end, it’s down to pressure. In Toronto, there is none.
It has become an article of faith that, save Montreal, there is no tougher place to play in the NHL than this city. And not just in the NHL, in all of sport.
Who is feeling this pressure? Where exactly? How is it evidenced? What proof do we have of it?
Pressure implies that you must succeed or else. Or else what?
The Leafs fail and that’s fine. There may be a couple of days of angst, but then everyone goes home and cools down and we all gather again in a few of months to promise each other that it should be different this time.
This is pressure in what sense? We should all have jobs this ‘pressured.’
You think the media here is tough? The Toronto media are house cats. You want some hardbitten press types, read a paper in London or Madrid. Those people are piranhas. They come at you in a pack and strip you to the bone. You lose a couple of games and they’ll ruin your career. You blow a season and they’ll ruin your life.
In North America, the beat guys have to look the players in the eye. It’s not a mutual admiration society, but everyone stays polite. That shows in the product. The media-hates-the-Leafs story has no basis in written or broadcast fact.
The outside pressure in Toronto is nil, but people never shut up about all the pressure – so it’s even less than nothing.
Hockey players feel more pressure in Anaheim or New Jersey. Failure in those cities has a visible effect – it’s staring you in the face in the form of empty seats. In Toronto, it always looks as though the team is winning. Whether it is immaterial.
Nylander has played in a group led by the same three guys for eight years. That’s nearly twice the length of the average NHL career. They’ve won nothing and all three are bigger rock stars now than the day they arrived.
Matthews just became the highest paid player in the game. Nylander won’t be far behind and Mitch Marner will end up somewhere between the two of them.
There’s a very possible world in which all three are Leafs for 15 years, never play a single game in June and retire far and away the three highest-paid employees in franchise history. It’s probably a likely world.
If that’s how it ends, they’ll be welcomed back like heroes so that we can reminisce about the good old days (that one time they beat Tampa because Tampa was tired and bored).
If Nylander’s top priority is winning, his decision is clear – he has to go. The Leafs are not getting better. If anything, they’re headed in the opposite direction. So why not give it a shot elsewhere? Change is like a vacation and all that.
If his priority is anything else, he’ll stay.
So he’s staying.
If the Leafs were serious about winning, they’d be telling themselves the same thing. That you always change a losing game.
But the rules that apply to the Leafs players apply equally to the Leafs organization. They’ve seen how bad it gets when things go wrong. It’s not that bad. It’s nowhere close to bad.
So if you’re worried, don’t be. The question you should not be asking is ‘Will William Nylander stay?’
It’s ‘Why would William Nylander (or anyone else) ever leave?’