Amid the longest point-scoring streak in Maple Leafs history, the mostly superb goaltending and the surprisingly strong defence, William Nylander’s exceptional play has been overshadowed.
Cue the familiar howling from the expected detractors here: “Willy can’t do this. Willy can’t do that. Willy doesn’t care.”
One thing Willy sure does that is indisputable is score.
Nylander had two goals on Saturday and factored in all five of Toronto’s in its overtime victory over the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Arena.
The 26-year-old right winger leads the club this season with 17 goals and is second on the team behind only Auston Matthews in that statistic over the past three-plus years.
Some Maple Leafs fans dislike him because he held out in 2018 before he signed a contract at the last minute. The six-year deal costs Toronto US$6.9-million annually toward its salary cap and now represents a bargain.
Nylander earns about US$5-million less than Matthews and makes about 40 per cent less than that of Mitch Marner and captain John Tavares each year.
No doubt the Canadian-born Swede has had occasional mental or defensive lapses but they have become fewer and farther between.
“He is maturing,” Sheldon Keefe, the Toronto head coach, said after Saturday’s 5-4 win. “Over time, you get sick of having the coach in your ear all the time, and you want to get that sorted out yourself.
“He has a long ways to go still in terms of what his potential is and what he can do. You’re seeing that now.”
Nylander registered the first five-point game of his career on Saturday in his eighth season in the NHL. The Maple Leafs improved to 18-5-6 and are now just one point behind the Bruins in the Atlantic Division, although Boston had three games in hand entering a Sunday night contest in Las Vegas.
Toronto has gone 11-0-3 in its past 14 games and has not lost in regulation time since Nov. 11 against Pittsburgh. Since Oct. 30, it is 14-1-4 and has accrued 32 of a possible 38 points.
Of course, Nylander is far from the only one with his hand on the tiller. Marner scored twice on Saturday, including the winner, and has points in 22 consecutive games, the longest such streak in franchise history.
Matthews had a goal, and now has six in the past seven. Michael Bunting scored in the third period to extend his points streak to eight games, the longest of his career.
Matt Murray had a subpar night in Toronto’s net but improved to 7-1-2 and has a .926 save percentage. Ilya Samsonov will likely get the start on Tuesday when the Anaheim Ducks pay a visit. The amiable Russian is 8-2 with a .933 save percentage.
Nylander has 17 goals through 29 games and three goals and four assists in the past two outings.
“When he is feeling it, he is hard to stop out there,” Marner, who has 30 points during his run, said late Saturday. “He is a lot of fun to have on your team. He was a difference-maker tonight, for sure.”
After the loss, Calgary head coach Darryl Sutter called Toronto the best team in the league and lauded its top players.
“Those guys have taken it to another whole level in terms of their leadership,” Sutter said. “They are by-example type players. It is evident when you watch them.”
That includes Nylander, who continues to excel even if at times it seems he marches to the beat of a different drummer.
“Look, you just want to do better than the year before,” he said. “You are always trying to get better. I am just focused on skating. That is the most important thing for me. It helps me create space and get chances out there.”
Keefe said Nylander is getting closer to the club’s other elite players.
“Willy has the potential to be in that top tier,” Keefe said. “Auston and Mitch have established themselves in the exclusive top tier of the league. Willy should be right there hanging with those guys.
“He is pushing himself, and they’re all pushing each other, which is how that group can get to greater heights.”