On the ice, William Nylander has his swagger back. Off the ice, the Maple Leafs style maven never lost it.
“He loves to do his own thing," teammate Kasperi Kapanen said as he sat at his dressing stall after an extended practice session on Friday. “He is an interesting character."
The 23-year-old son of a former NHL player and brother to another occasionally pops up with his hair in corn rows or brushed back like a flowing lion’s mane. When he is really feeling it, he busts out a slim-fit double-breasted suit, shaded spectacles and wraps his neck in a scarf.
He looks like US$41.8-million, which is how much Toronto ponied up a year ago to sign him for six years.
What is more important is that he looks more and more like the same slick forward who accumulated 42 goals and 122 points in back-to-back seasons not so long ago.
“He is back to being Willy again,” said Zach Hyman, an off-and-on linemate over four-plus seasons.
Nylander has 11 goals and 11 assists through the Maple Leafs’ first 30 games, and has recently been among their most effective players. It is what everyone expected after he held out for big money, but it didn’t happen as quickly as expected.
Instead, Nylander scuffled terribly last season and finished with career lows of seven goals and 27 points in 54 games. Fans were so outraged over his large contract and poor production that they called for him to be traded.
Fortunately, Kyle Dubas, Toronto’s general manager, resisted such an urge if there ever was one. Dubas blamed himself for the drawn-out contract negotiations that caused Nylander to miss one-third of the season. After months of discussions, they came to an agreement only minutes before the league’s Dec. 1 deadline to sign restricted free agents.
Nylander never practised with the team, was rushed into the lineup a few days later, started poorly and never was able to climb out of the funk.
“It was a long, hard process,” he said. “I feel that I lost the ability to have much impact as I missed more and more time."
He enters Saturday night’s meeting against the Blues in St. Louis with eight goals and 13 points in Toronto’s past 15 games. His renewed scoring touch is one of the few positives on a team that has played so erratically that it finds itself out of a playoff position.
“He has played in full two months of games, had a training camp and had a whole summer to prepare for it,” Hyman said. “That has helped him feel more comfortable. It is different for him from last year.
“I really don’t think he played that poorly, but he didn’t get many bounces and when that happens, it leans on you a little bit.”
The Maple Leafs have won only 13 times in 30 chances as they head off on a four-game trip that begins against the Stanley Cup champions. Each of the four opponents has a winning record, so it will not be easy.
A good showing could prove to be a springboard to success. A bad one could turn visits to Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton into a voyage of the damned.
“I think it is a really crucial trip,” Auston Matthews said. “It is a chance for us to separate ourselves from where we are in the pack.”
Toronto is fifth among eight teams in the Atlantic Division, but only two points separate second from sixth.
Dubas said Nylander has been excellent thus far, and he will likely have to be there for the team to reach the postseason. He scored three times in four games recently.
“This is what I paid for,” Dubas said earlier in the week. “I’m excited for him because I think last year was difficult for him. I wish we could have found a conclusion earlier and I put that entirely on myself. I didn’t set him up for success at all.”
Nylander is a Swedish-Canadian who was born in Calgary, while his father, Michael, played for the Flames. Clearly, William and his brother, Alexander, inherited dad’s genes. Toronto chose William in the first round, eighth over all, in the 2014 NHL draft.
The Maple Leafs, who have struggled with injuries, suffered another blow when Andreas Johnsson hurt a leg against Colorado on Wednesday night. The forward was placed on long-term injured reserve on Friday and Nic Petan and Pontus Aberg were recalled from the AHL Marlies.
Nylander has a point in 18 of 30 games.
“You can see that confidence of his returning,” Kapanen said. “I don’t blame him for what happened last year. It’s tough to come in so late. He never could get into a groove.”
Of course, he looks good now. Not a hair out of place. More important, he is playing better.