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From left: Alexander Kerfoot, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly og the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate after Rielly and Kerfoot assisted Nylander on a first-period goal against the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Despite the contempt that many fans show for him, William Nylander has been the second-most-valuable player on the Toronto Maple Leafs for three years running.

As sure as the 25-year-old will continue to score clutch goals, there will be detractors who demand that he get traded so that less pricy options such as Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall or Jason Spezza get more opportunities.

Some cynics have never got over Nylander’s prolonged holdout in 2018 despite the fact that the contract he signed for – US$6.9-million annually – has turned out to be justifiable on a team that tosses money around like water.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season, only one Toronto player – Auston Matthews with 26 – has more game-winning goals than Nylander’s 21. Over the same period, he has scored eight times in the postseason – the same as Matthews – but was the team’s best playoff performer in each of the past two years.

There are plenty of culprits to assail for the Maple Leafs’ inability to get beyond a first round, but he is not one of them.

Nylander scored on a breakaway and then got the winner in a shootout on Tuesday in Toronto’s 4-3 victory in Las Vegas over the Golden Knights. He headed into Wednesday night’s game in Arizona with nine goals and 10 assists over the previous 13 games, and his 16 goals and 36 points overall were second only to Matthews.

Nevertheless there will be some detractors who decry Nylander as aloof or lazy or some other such hooey while they praise teammates who make US$3-million a year more and produce less. For some, disparaging him has become as much a thing as it is to boo NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

For sure, coaches and fellow team members recognize Nylander’s worth.

“He is really dynamic with the puck and you see that pretty much every night,” Matthews said after the win over Vegas.

Nylander put Toronto ahead 1-0 only 1 minute 24 seconds into the game when he streaked down the ice and accepted a long pass from Morgan Rielly and then beat Robin Lehner, the Golden Knights’ net minder.

“It was an unbelievable pass,” Nylander said. “It was a bullet and a saucer pass at the same time and went right over a defender’s stick and right on to mine. It was incredible.”

The Maple Leafs took a 3-1 lead into the third period and then blew it before Nylander beat Lehner again in the shootout. In the tiebreaker, Jack Campbell denied attempts by Evgenii Dadonov, Chandler Stephenson and Jonathan Marchessault, and Lehner stopped Spezza and Matthews before Nylander scored for the win.

It would have been his team-leading fifth game-winner in 2021-22 if shootout goals counted in that category. (They don’t.)

Nylander said he did not think about the early breakaway goal when he squared off against Lehner with the outcome hanging in the balance.

“It was a totally different situation,” he said. “You have time and nobody is chasing you. I tried to see what he gave me and then got it up there and beat him glove-side. You have a couple of moves in the back of your head.”

The victory was Toronto’s fifth in six games. The road trip continues with an encounter with the Blues in St. Louis on Saturday and then games in New York with the Rangers (Jan. 19) and Islanders (Jan. 22). The next home game at Scotiabank Arena isn’t until Jan. 26 against Anaheim.

The Maple Leafs entered Wednesday with a 23-8-3 record and were keeping up the pace in the NHL’s Atlantic Division with the first-place Florida Panthers and second-place Tampa Bay Lightning.

There are still mistakes to clean up, including a penalty that was assessed Tuesday for having too many men on the ice while short-handed. That one had Keefe shaking his head.

“I mean, I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever seen a short-handed team get called for too many men, especially when they have the puck,” Keefe said. “Those things can’t happen. They are the mental mistakes that you got to get out of your game.”

Toronto has played well despite having a half-dozen games postponed and 15 players who have come down with COVID-19. Mitch Marner and Engvall were unavailable against Arizona because of it.

Nylander, meanwhile, appears to be en route to surpassing the career-best 31 goals he scored in 2019-20. He was sidelined because of the coronavirus but did not have symptoms.

“It is just a part of what is going on around the world right now,” Nylander said. “There is nothing you can do about it. You just have to stay focused and do the best you can.”