William Nylander was waiting anxiously for a new contract 12 months ago.
In better shape and minus the burden he carried after finally signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs last December, the winger was everywhere Friday night.
Now he just needs to find his range.
Nylander had 15 shot attempts as Toronto’s top line, that also included Auston Matthews and Andreas Johnsson, combined for five points in the Leafs’ first victory of the NHL pre-season — a 3-0 shutout over the Buffalo Sabres.
“The way he can skate and his edge work, he frees up a lot of space for himself,” Matthews said of Nylander before deadpanning: “He’s just got to hit the net.”
Matthews and Johnsson each had a goal and an assist, while Frederik Andersen stopped all 24 shots he faced in two periods of work for Toronto. Matt Read also scored for the home side. Michael Hutchinson made five saves in relief.
Nylander’s contract impasse came to an end minutes before a Dec. 1 deadline when the restricted free agent signed a six-year deal worth nearly US$7-million per season, and he never really got going in 2018-19, finishing with seven goals and 27 points in 54 games.
“Willie might have had the puck tonight as much as he had last year,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “I’m not kidding. He’s got to be feeling good about himself.”
Nylander added a goal and two assists in Toronto’s seven-game exit to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs, but really got going at the world championships, where he led the tournament with 18 points (five goals, 13 points) in eight outings.
Nylander, who had six shots on target against the Sabres, is hoping that play translates to the NHL. Friday night was a good start.
“Our line was skating well,” Nylander said. “But it would maybe be nice to hit the net on a few.”
Linus Ullmark started for the Sabres and stopped 21 shots in 40 minutes of action. Andrew Hammond played the third period and made 10 saves.
The Leafs dropped their first two games of the exhibition schedule to the Ottawa Senators — a 3-1 decision in St. John’s, N.L., on Tuesday and a 4-3 setback in the nation’s capital the following night.
Unlike many Stanley Cup contenders’ training camps, there are jobs to be won in Toronto between now and Oct. 2 when the Leafs open the regular season at home against Ottawa. Spots are up for grabs on the fourth line and third defence pair, while the backup goalie position also needs to be filled.
Toronto was second-best for most of the game’s first 10 minutes, but grabbed a 1-0 lead at 9:48 of the opening period on the power play. Matthews saw his initial shot blocked before Kenny Agostino whipped a quick backhand from the side of the net that went under Ullmark and right to Johnsson.
Andersen, who allowed one goal on 13 shots in his pre-season debut Tuesday, robbed Rasmus Asplund at the other end before Nylander — who’s switched from No. 29 to No. 88 this season — fired high at the other end.
The first sporting event held at Scotiabank Arena since Game 5 of the NBA Finals back in June, Friday had a decidedly different feel in a matchup where both teams dressed less than half of their projected regular-season rosters.
But the goalies did their best to provide some entertainment with a string of nice saves in the second.
Ullmark robbed Nylander of a sure goal with his skate before Andersen snapped out the glove to deny Jean-Sebastien Dea.
“Some big saves there,” Matthews said of his netminder. “Hopefully he’s not having to make that many come regular-season time.”
Nylander was then stopped on a breakaway, but he deftly set up Matthews for Toronto’s second at 12:15.
Read, who’s also in Toronto on a PTO, made it 3-0 at 9:40 of the final period on a nice toe drag after rookie defenceman Rasmus Sandin poked the puck off a Sabres’ stick in the neutral zone.
Casey Mittelstadt had a chance to break the shutout later in the third after stepping around Sandin, but his shot found iron.
The Sabres and the Leafs meet again Saturday night in Buffalo.
Babcock said he’s starting to get some clarity on which players will stick in Toronto as training camp approaches the midway point.
“The separation between our guys and the other guys, it grows every day,” he said. “The players that are going to end up playing here, they’re just going to separate themselves.”