Nov 15, 2021
Keefe: Nylander closing consistency gap but ‘needs to be pushed'
Maple Leafs winger William Nylander is off to a great start with 15 points in 16 games but head coach Sheldon Keefe says the 25-year-old’s minus-2 performance against the Sabres on Saturday is an example of what's holding him back – a consistent effort is needed night after night, Mark Masters writes.
By Mark Masters
TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Monday ahead of Tuesday’s home game against the Nashville Predators.
With the Leafs locked in a tight game against the Sabres in Buffalo on Saturday night, William Nylander didn't see the ice during the final two minutes and 55 seconds of the third period.
"Defensively, the [Auston] Matthews, Nylander and [Ondrej] Kase line was giving up a lot and was not producing much offensively," coach Sheldon Keefe explained. "It was at a point in the game where I had to make a decision to put some lines together that were going to give us a chance to hopefully win the game, but certainly not allow us to lose the game. I had to make that decision. It is not necessarily a reflection on Will in particular. It's me having to make a call at that time."
Michael Bunting, who had scored earlier in the game, took Nylander's spot.
"Bunting, because of the fact that he hadn't played much, but had played well, could give us a little boost at that particular time," Keefe said. "If we got to overtime, Will was going to be the first guy over the boards in that situation. We just decided to make that switch for that part of the game."
Nylander is off to a great start with 15 points in 16 games. He's tied with John Tavares for the team scoring lead. Only Washington's Alex Ovechkin has fired more shots on net this season than Nylander.
"He's a world-class talent,” said veteran forward Jason Spezza. "One of the most talented players in the game. The stuff he does on the ice is not something many guys can do."
If Nylander can do it consistently, he'll be considered among the best in the game.
"I want to be there," the smooth-skating Swede confirmed. "That's my goal, to strive for that. You have to have a full complete season and playoffs."
Saturday's minus-2 performance was an example of what's holding him back.
"It was not too good," Nylander readily admits. "Didn't really generate that much offence."
The 25-year-old seemed to reach a new level in last year's playoffs. He led the Leafs in scoring with five goals and three assists and drove the second line after Tavares was knocked out of the series. Maintaining that level over 82 games, however, is an entirely different challenge.
"There's nights you feel really good and energetic and nights when you don't and you have to adjust your game and he's a guy who's learning that," said Spezza. "We play every day and it takes a lot of mental grind and physical grind and it's a skill that's learned."
After Friday's 2-1 overtime win over the Calgary Flames in which Nylander posted two assists, Keefe did his best to pump the brakes on the No. 88 hype train. The coach said Nylander still has another level to get to.
"I've talked to Will a number of times and he's made it very clear to me that he's a guy that wants and needs to be pushed and challenged and feels that he needs that so, at times, that's the way it's going to go," Keefe revealed.
On Monday, Nylander said he's happy with his season, but far from satisfied.
"Want to do better," he stressed. "There's certain aspects that you want to keep going and getting better at. For example, spending more time in the O-zone and generating heavy shifts down there and making their defence tired."
It's impossible to be flying every night, but that's not necessarily the goal.
"Make sure that the difference between your best and your worst is not a massive gap," Keefe said. "I think that's really important as a player, but it's not an easy thing to get to. I certainly believe that William, through the last year, and I'm talking parts of last season and parts of this season, is really starting to close that gap."
The Leafs have won eight of nine games, but Keefe is shaking up his top tandems. Matthews and Mitch Marner have been reunited on the top line alongside Nick Ritchie. Nylander has rejoined Tavares and Alex Kerfoot on the second line.
"When I focus on Auston and Will I don't think, at five on five, the connection has been there," Keefe explained. "Through 10 games, they have connected for one goal, which was when Auston got a second assist on William's goal in Philadelphia off of a skate. Aside from that, they have produced, but the lines have been different or they have been playing with different players when they have scored."
The Matthews-Nylander and Tavares-Marner combinations were put together following a 7-1 loss in Pittsburgh.
"I do think the individual players have played well," Keefe said. "But when I went through and looked at the chances Auston has generated, the chances that Will has generated, they haven't necessarily involved each other. It just speaks to how great individually that they are, but the connection hasn't been there ... I think we are in a spot where I would like to go back to what I intended at the start."
Ritchie and Marner played together in the first six games of the season. Matthews joined them for three games after returning from wrist surgery.
"Auston, Ritchie, and Mitch is what we had started with and It didn't go well," Keefe acknowledged. "I think all three players, frankly, are in a different place right now with their games than where they were. We want to give it another run. We like how it sets things up underneath that."
After sitting as a healthy scratch on Saturday, 21-year-old Rasmus Sandin will draw back into the lineup for Tuesday's game. He skated alongside Travis Dermott at practice. Timothy Liljegren, 22, will be the odd man out against the Predators.
"We feel that we have seven defencemen who can and should play," Keefe said. "We have to manage that. At the same time, with Sandin and Liljegren, it is important that — while we think both guys have played well, particularly together — we manage them appropriately. I looked at Sandin's situation. He has already played more games this season than he played last season. He didn't play much in the AHL at all with his injury and the way the season went. He didn't play much in the NHL. He has played a lot of hockey and I would say the same about Liljegren, recently."
Sandin played 15 total games last season (AHL and NHL, including the playoffs). Tuesday will be his 16th game of this season.
Liljegren played 23 combined games last season (AHL and NHL). He's already up to 10 this season.
"We are coming off of a very busy schedule," Keefe said. "[Liljegren's] play warranted that he stay in the games, but this is a good chance for him to take one night, ease the schedule a little bit, and give others the chance to go. He will certainly get himself back in."
After allowing four goals on 27 shots in his NHL debut on Saturday in Buffalo, Joseph Woll remained the team's backup goalie at practice.
"We are taking it a game at a time with that," said Keefe. "I think the experience that Joe got the other day is tremendous for him and his development. I am thrilled for him that we were able to get him a win. Every day that he is able to spend here is a good day for him and his development."
The Leafs have another back-to-back set on the schedule this weekend with games Saturday (versus Pittsburgh) and Sunday (at New York Islanders).
Toronto's other depth goalie options made their case for an NHL start over the weekend as the Toronto Marlies played a pair of games in Chicago. Erik Kallgren stopped 38 of 39 shots in a win on Saturday. Michael Hutchinson turned aside 37 of 38 shots in an overtime win on Sunday.
"We see guys pushing down there," said Keefe. "Kallgren and Hutchinson came off of two great starts. We have that happening. We just have to make sure we take it a day at a time and continue to monitor it. [General manager] Kyle [Dubas] is really on that situation more than I am. We are just going to continue to prepare the team."
Jack Campbell was all smiles at the end of practice. The goalie, who will play his 100th career NHL game on Tuesday, brought a trophy onto the ice ahead of a shootout competition.
"The only thing that I can say about that is that goalie coaches and goalies in general do strange things, but you generally give them some rope, because they're so important to the team," said Keefe with a big smile. "They were trying to create a little extra competition towards the breakaways and shootouts this season, but I don't know a whole lot about it other than that."
At the end of an optional morning skate recently, Spezza lined up pucks in the corner and took some bad-angle blasts at the net. The 38-year-old was amused that a Twitter video featuring that work, posted by your humble correspondent, made waves on social media.
"I've done it for 20 years and because now I'm in Toronto and you decide to film it and put it on the Internet, now the whole world sees it," Spezza said with his trademark laugh. "I kind of go through the same routines at practice that I have for years."
Spezza actually tried to score on that exact shot during Wednesday's game in Philadelphia.
"I thought [Carter] Hart was out and off the angle," Spezza noted. "You saw [Dylan] Larkin score the other day off a similar type shot."
"It'd be really cool to see him bury one from there," Nylander said. "He's got a wicked one timer. I'd love to see that."
The sequence in Philadelphia inspired the website heatdaddymerch.com to start selling T-shirts featuring Spezza in the corner ready for a one-timer under the title, "The Spezza Zone." Matthews was quick to reTweet.
"Auston tweeted it and we had some good laughs," Spezza said. "Definitely some levity out of it."
As he was leaving the ice following the win in Philadelphia, Jake Muzzin tossed his stick to a fan in a No. 8 Muzzin sweater.
"I saw him in warm-ups and (laugh) he looked like he was having a good time," the defenceman said. "I don't think there's many Muzzin fans in Philly. I didn't like that stick anyways so I thought I'd give it to him."
The man screamed in delight while holding the stick up high. Yes, Muzzin saw the reaction.
"Someone did send me the TikTok video," he said. "Yeah, he was pretty happy. I'm happy it made his night."
A reporter asked Morgan Rielly if he saw the funny bounce the puck took on his game-winning goal Saturday night.
"I didn't think it was that funny,” the deadpan defenceman said before breaking into a smile. "It's just a little good luck so I'll take it."
Rielly's shot hit the crossbar before bouncing off the ice in the crease and back into the net stopping the clock with 11.8 seconds left in the third period. It was his 35th shot of the season, but his first goal.
"I kind of feel like early on there were plenty of opportunities and posts and stuff so definitely it's about time," Rielly said. "So, just good to get it off your mind."
Earlier in the game, Bunting snapped his own drought. The winger looked skyward after ended a six-game dry spell.
"More relief than anything," Bunting said with a laugh. "I've had my chances and it just hasn't been going in for me, but all it takes is one for that floodgate to open. Hopefully, I can move on from that little slump there and start putting it into the net."
Bunting only produced two even-strength assists during a recent nine-game run on the top line. On Saturday, he started on the fourth line.
"Wherever I am in the lineup I'm coming in and playing my game," the 26-year-old rookie said. "It doesn't bother me if I'm on the fourth, third, second or first line, I'm coming in and playing my game and nothing changes for my mindset."
Lines at Monday's practice:
Ritchie - Matthews - Marner
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Engvall - Kampf - Kase
Bunting - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Dermott
Power-play units at Monday's practice:
Matthews - Nylander - Marner
Engvall - Bunting - Spezza