Dubas: 'Our intention is to have Nylander here as long as we can'
TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs practised on Monday at the MasterCard Centre before travelling to Buffalo.
In his first session with the Toronto media since signing a new contract, William Nylander revealed that general manager Kyle Dubas pledged to him on multiple occasions that as long as he's running the Maple Leafs, the Swede won't be traded.
"I don't know why that's a surprise," Dubas said. "I've been on the record as saying that ... it's our intention to have him here as long as we're here. He’s an excellent young player. I don’t think we want to get in the business of not having excellent young players so that’s how we feel about it."
Those assurances were important for the 22-year-old during a stressful process, which was only resolved minutes before Saturday's deadline.
"The last 30 minutes were crazy," Nylander said smiling and shaking his head. "I mean, I think the contract was signed at like 4:53 (p.m. ET) and it was crazy. I couldn't believe it ... it was a long negotiation to get to where both sides were happy."
"I was checking my Twitter feed probably every 15 seconds," recalled Kasperi Kapanen, Nylander's teammate and good friend. "It was going down to the wire there and I was getting nervous a bit ... The guy’s got some ice in his veins, that’s for sure. Let’s put it that way."
"It was a tough process," Nylander admitted, "and for sure a learning experience that I don't ever want to go through again. But I think it made me stronger as a person. Wanting to be here and finally getting it done was a huge relief."
So, why was Nylander so determined? Why did he become the first restricted free agent to push the process to the limit?
"It was a big part of my future," he explained. "I mean, I wanted to be a Leaf for the next long, long while here and six years, looking forward, it's going to be great to be here ... it's a special feeling every time you put that jersey on. I can't wait to wear it for the first time this year."
Camped out overseas, Nylander didn't get a chance to watch too many Leafs games in full, but was impressed at how well the team performed in his absence. Dubas noticed a narrative emerging in Toronto that maybe the Leafs didn't need Nylander and should move him to address other needs and quickly nipped that in the bud.
"My message to William was I don't think our team will be at its full potential until he's back and a part of it and only then can we truly assess our team," Dubas said.
Dubas joined the Maple Leafs organization only a month after the club drafted Nylander eighth overall in June of 2014. He watched him develop with the Marlies and knows him very well.
“He’s an elite passer and an elite shooter," Dubas said, "so that’s what excites me about him. He's put up excellent numbers (135 points in 185 games), certainly, for a young player in the NHL and you see the way the league is going and we're excited about adding that back into our club and into the top of our forward group ... he's earned his contract with the potential that he's shown and in knowing him and knowing the amount of work he puts in off the ice and how he conducts himself and the condition that he's in, I don't have any doubt that he will reach that level and continue to go beyond it."
A group of Leafs players visited with Nylander on Sunday night welcoming him back to town.
“When I saw him I did the ‘Make it Rain’ dance," Mitch Marner said with a grin, "just gave him a hug and said, ‘Congrats on the new contract’ ... It’s great for him. I mean, he got what he wanted and that’s exactly what he deserved."
Nylander laughed when Marner's dance was brought up.
"It was really fun to see them yesterday," he said. "It felt like I hadn't missed any time.”
Kapanen may be Nylander's closest friend on the team and admitted to having dreams about his return in the days before the deadline. What was the reunion like with his buddy?
"It had been a long time," he said with a smile. "I don't know. There were a lot of emotions in the air. It's just good to have him back."
It's pretty clear the Leafs players and coach Mike Babcock are weary of all the questions about Nylander, which picked up substantially in recent days.
"Oh, here we go," Auston Matthews said when his media session started with another question about his long-lost linemate. "We're all just happy it's over and we can all just move on and stop talking about it."
When Nylander will actually return to game action remains unclear. He didn't take part in practice on Monday as he was undergoing medical testing. He'll meet with the coaching staff (likely on Wednesday) to discuss a timeline.
How's Nylander feeling?
"Now, I’m kind of coming into training camp," he said. "So, the start of any season, it will take a few games to get back in the swing of things and stuff. Otherwise, I feel like I’m in great shape."
"It’s going to be hard for him," Babcock acknowledged, "but the one thing about Willie is he has unbelievable edges. He’s a real good skater and I think that really helps you. He’s a fitness guy, works anyway, so ideally that will help him."
One thing's clear, you can be both rusty and productive. Matthews has scored three goals and added an assist in his two games since returning from a left shoulder injury.
"Still not feeling completely like myself, but it's just two games in so continue to get my legs back under me, my wind back and hope to continue to play better and better," Matthews said after Saturday's game in Minnesota.
And Marner is quick to point out that Nylander's work ethic will help make the transition smoother.
"That guy's a freak," Marner said. "He works on the ice. I'm sure he's been keeping up with all that kind of stuff in Sweden."
Babcock refused to say where Nylander will slot in once he returns. Kapanen, who's currently on right wing with Matthews, said he's comfortable playing on his off side should the need arise.
"I played left wing before so it’s not a problem," he noted.
With Nylander back, the Leafs needed to open a roster spot and they did just that by trading Josh Leivo to the Vancouver Canucks for Michael Carcone, who has spent the last three seasons in the AHL. Leivo was a healthy scratch most of the last two seasons and appeared to be the odd-man out once Nylander returned.
"I've known him for a long time," Dubas said. "In the summer, meeting with (agent) Ian Pulver and Josh ... I gave them my word that if there was a situation we were coming up upon where he would not be in the lineup night in and night out that we would avoid that and that we would try and find a spot for him where he would have a greater opportunity and so that's what we spent the last couple days doing. We wish him all the success in the world in Vancouver and we'll be cheering for him and hope he does well."
Leivo played in all 27 games with the Leafs this season producing four goals and two assists in a fourth-line role while also logging time on the second power play unit.
Defenceman Travis Dermott, who is waiver exempt, was sent down to the AHL temporarily to make room for Nylander on the roster on Sunday. Dermott missed practice on Monday, but was recalled after the Leivo trade and will play on Tuesday in Buffalo.
Lines at Leafs practice: