TORONTO —When the COVID-19 pandemic cut short the NHL’s regular season in March, it also halted what was swiftly becoming the best season of William Nylander's career.
But he's not feeling slighted. Rather, Nylander is using that success to fuel his ultimate goal of becoming a bona fide playoff performer for the Maple Leafs, when they embark on another postseason run in Phase 4 of the NHL’s return to play plan next month.
“[The playoffs] are where all the big players show up,” Nylander told reporters on a Zoom call from Ford Performance Centre on Tuesday, where Toronto’s Phase 3 training camp continued.” And that's where I think a big part of my game this year will help me become a dominant player in the playoffs.”
Nylander hasn’t reached such heights in playoffs past, producing just 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 20 postseason games. But he's rarely been as commanding a presence on the ice as he was in 2019-20.
Through 68 games before the pause, Nylander put up 59 points (two shy of his career high in an 82-game season) and a career-high 31 goals, placing him second only to Auston Matthews in that category among Leafs.
It was all a triumphant return to form for Nylander, who cobbled together a forgettable 27-point season in 2018-19 after missing the Leafs’ first 28 games embroiled in a contract stalemate. But while the 24-year-old will never know now just how inflated his recent stats could have become, he’ll still take valuable lessons from the pandemic-shortened year into Toronto’s playoff push.
“I was playing pretty good there,” Nylander acknowledged. “I got into a good flow and I think I started to find my game and develop in the areas where my strengths are and that I use the most out there. I think I was getting more out of my game.”
When the NHL first went on pause, Nylander took some much-needed time to decompress, traveling to Florida with his brother Alex for a couple months. It turned out to be not only a bonding experience for the siblings, but a chance for Nylander to keep his competitive juices flowing.
“I think we played probably about 45 [tennis] matches,” Nylander laughed. “And I think he was up one or two [games] there when we left Florida so it was a pretty tight [competition]. It was a long time ago since we spent that much time together. We had a blast. We were playing video games, playing tennis every day, so it was lots of fun.”
But once the NHL announced its plan to get back on the ice, in a 24-team playoff tournament set to kick-off Aug. 1, Nylander made his way back to Toronto for voluntary Phase 2 workouts. Those set the stage for his emergence in Phase 3, which will be a two-week long build-up towards the Leafs facing the Columbus Blue Jackets in Phase 4’s best-of-five qualifying round play-in series.
“I [only] missed like two practices of Phase 2, so I feel pretty good out there,” Nylander said. “I think the conditioning that we’d been doing during [that] has helped us a lot with getting our legs going [again]. We were only five guys for the beginning of Phase 2, so that got us a lot of conditioning going and we had a lot of skates so I think we're feeling pretty good.”
Head coach Sheldon Keefe opted to put Nylander back on his former line with Matthews and Zach Hyman to start training camp, a place Nylander has always been comfortable (“we know there’s chemistry there”) but that may not be his home for long.
“That [line combination] is how we finished, just before the pause,” Keefe explained. “We had made that switch, so I felt strongly enough about it at that time [to revisit it]. That said, it's about two weeks [we have] here. I expect to move things around a little bit here and just try different things and get guys comfortable with each other and renew some chemistry so I expect it to move around a fair bit.”
This is Keefe’s first training camp as an NHL coach, since he was promoted behind the Leafs’ bench to replace Mike Babcock in November. So far, Nylander’s been impressed with Keefe's structure for each day.
“I think it's run really efficiently,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of work done in the little time that we have and we've gone through a lot of things just in the first two days. We're getting scrimmages going and obviously that's really important with the limited amount of games we get to play [just one exhibition tilt] before the actual play-in starts.”
In Tuesday’s session, Keefe actually had two linesmen and a referee on the ice during special teams scrimmages, adding some realism to the power play and penalty kill work.
"That was great,” Nylander said. “You’ve got to get used to where the refs are out there coming into the zone and just setting up in the zone. It's a little different, because they take up some space, so running [drills] without it would leave some more space for the power play, obviously, and I think that was a great aspect to be put in there.”
Still, nothing can totally prepare Toronto for what’s ahead, when it transitions from not playing a game in four months to starting a do-or-die playoff series. Like everywhere else in life though, the Leafs are learning to adapt.
“Obviously, it's different,” Nylander shrugged. “We haven't been skating as a team in a long time so it's nice to be out there. And I think we're pushing the pace hard, even before the camp started, so I think we got the conditioning aspect pretty dialed there and hopefully that'll help us going into this postseason.”