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Toronto Maple Leafs left wing William Nylander takes a shot during a preseason game against the Buffalo Sabres.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

A year ago, William Nylander was in Sweden, hanging out with family and desperately hoping to hammer out a contract with the Maple Leafs. He never imagined it would take another two months for a deal to be reached – seven minutes before the deadline expired for NHL teams to sign restricted free agents.

The 23-year-old right winger skated and trained and prepared for the season as best he could, but it was nothing like fine-tuning one’s skills during an arduous NHL training camp. Rushed into the lineup five days after he arrived in Toronto, he failed to rekindle the sizzle that helped him accumulate 61 points in each of the two previous seasons.

“I felt I was ready, but what I discovered was that other players were a step ahead of me,” Nylander said after practice at the Ford Performance Centre in suburban Toronto earlier this week. “I fell behind. The transition was harder than I expected.”

After signing a six-year-contract worth nearly US$46-million, it took him a dozen games to score his first goal. He finished with a career-low total of seven. With a base salary of US$10-million last season, he made nearly US$1.5-million each time he netted a puck.

His struggles didn’t sit well with the organization’s rabid fans, some of whom called for him to be traded. After holding out for one-third of the season, he ended up with only 27 points and at one stretch had only one point in 16 games. Previously, he had never gone more than five games without hitting the score sheet.

He was even once briefly demoted to the fourth line, a place usually reserved for utility men, defensive specialists, journeymen or rookies.

“From going through the contract situation to playing the first game right away, everything was abnormal,” Nylander says. “It was a tough process.”

The son of Michael Nylander, a Swedish NHL player, Nylander was born in Calgary and grew up mostly in the United States. Despite that, he more mirrors the country of his ancestral roots. He is all spit and polish, exceedingly polite and, even for a hockey player, remarkably bland.

When was the last time an eyebrow was raised or a feather was ruffled by a Swede over anything?

Nylander did not set out to create a sideshow at the start of last season, but things degenerated into one in the world’s biggest hockey market. Each side dug in and that resulted in prolonged negotiations. Kyle Dubas, the Toronto general manager, even flew to Sweden to meet him once in an attempt to break their stalemate.

An accord was only reached at the 11th hour – actually, well past that – when Nylander reached out to Dubas to avert the disaster of him having to sit out the entire 2018-19 season. Faxes with signed documents flew back and forth between Canada and Sweden and barely squeaked in ahead of the deadline.

“I learned through the experience,” Nylander said. Holding out enriched him for certain, but along with that came a subpar performance and considerable regret.

Toronto coach Mike Babcock has said Nylander is being counted upon heavily in what amounts to the organization as a make-or-break year. The Maple Leafs have forked over a lot of money – to Nylander and others – to avoid being banished from the playoffs after one round for the third successive year.

Anything other than a lengthy postseason run will be seen as a major disappointment.

With the Maple Leafs opener now just days away, things could not be more different for Nylander this year from last. Auston Matthews’s legal problems and Mitch Marner’s recent signing to a generous salary package have given cover to Nylander and his season of misery. He has faded from the spotlight’s glare and that is a welcome relief. He has a full preseason under his belt and feels comfortable again.

“There is a big difference from last year to this,” Nylander says. “Actually, it is huge. Everything is back to normal now.”

Nylander has played well during the practice exercises that are disguised as exhibitions. He has three assists in three games before Friday night’s game in Detroit against the Red Wings. Toronto’s final tune-up is at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday, also against Detroit. The Maple Leafs begin their march into the record books or infamy on Wednesday in Toronto against the Ottawa Senators.

A year ago, schedule-makers tossed the Leafs a bone. Their first five games were against opponents so soft they should have been filler in down pillows. This year, not so much. In their first 10 outings, they play the St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets twice.

They will have to come out of the chute quickly or find themselves in arrears in a highly competitive division. With Joel Quenneville now steering the rudder of the Florida Panthers, there does not appear to be a lightweight in the group.

Nylander feels he is up to the challenge of returning to the form that allowed him to score 22 and 20 goals before he plunged off a cliff last season. He blew into town with his hair blown back and wearing circular spectacles that made him look more like a philosopher than a forward and former No. 1 draft choice.

“You come in with the mindset that you are going to have a great team every time,” Nylander said. He wasn’t here last October, but now he is. “With this team, we should be able to go far.”

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