'Cool cat' Nylander moves to centre amid contract-year questions
The Maple Leafs opened training camp on Wednesday at the Ford Performance Centre. The team’s first on-ice session will take place at 10 a.m. on Thursday.
William Nylander doesn't have a new contract yet, but the 27-year-old does have a new position. He will open training camp as a centre.
"When people ask me if I think he can do it, I say that I think Willy can do whatever he puts his mind to," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "He is that good. He is that powerful. He is that strong."
Nylander was drafted as a centre and played in the middle for the Toronto Marlies when Keefe was his coach in the American Hockey League. But Nylander has mostly lined up on the wing during his eight seasons in the NHL. Playing centre will test Nylander's two-way game. Keefe has consistently pushed the smooth-skating Swede to stay defensively engaged.
"Moving from wing to centre is a lot more difficult on the fly than moving from centre to wing," Keefe said. "Giving him some time and opportunity to grow into that position through camp gives us a chance to see what it looks like, how it affects Willy's game and also how it affects our team and the flow of our team."
New general manager Brad Treliving pushed for an extended audition.
"Tree is coming in with a fresh set of eyes and a fresh set of ideas," Keefe said. "We talked about some of the history of William playing in the middle and how it has been sort of one-off here and there with not a whole lot of runway given to it or a whole lot of time to let it breathe and for him to get comfortable there."
TSN Hockey Insider Chris Johnston reports Nylander is expected to skate between Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok on Thursday when the Leafs hold their first on-ice sessions. If Nylander finds success as a centre, the Leafs can feature three dangerous offensive lines with John Tavares and Auston Matthews in the middle of the other units.
"It increases the depth of our team," Keefe said.
Per Johnston, Tavares is expected to start camp between Matthew Knies and Sam Lafferty. The 33-year-old may also see some shifts on left wing where he spent time late last season. And Nylander will also still see time on the wing.
"Whether it is Willy moving to the wing or John moving to the wing, we have tremendous options and flexibility," Keefe said.
Nylander established career highs in goals and points in each of the last two seasons. Last year, he hit the 40-goal mark, which tied for the team lead.
"He had a tremendous season," Keefe said. "I fully believe he will continue to grow on that. He set career highs and yet he did have a couple of periods of time in the season where he had some real lulls. I know he has tried to eliminate those lulls or reduce those lulls. Some of them are natural or inevitable over the course of an 82-game season, but he is a tremendous player who is really confident in himself and his ability. I will give him every opportunity to continue to build his game ... At times, I push William hard because I really believe in his ability. I believe he can accomplish more. I know he wants to accomplish great things."
Nylander has made a good first impression on Treliving.
"He is a cool cat," the 54-year-old said. "He is a really neat kid. I have spent a lot of time with him."
Treliving has learned that Nylander's laidback personality can also be deceiving.
"There is not a lot that bothers this guy," the former Calgary Flames executive said. "It can be misinterpreted. This guy really does care. He cares about having success. He cares about being a really good player. He works at his craft. I probably didn't have that perception of how driven he is."
Nylander is entering the final year of his contract and playing it cool. He is in no rush to sign an extension.
"I made a comment recently that it is a priority," Treliving said. "We want to get Willy signed. Willy is a really good player. You want to keep your good players. Willy has expressed to me — when he and I have talked — that he wants to be here. That is usually a good starting point. We will try to get it done."
Treliving doesn't plan on addressing the topic again until there is news to report. No one, though, seems too concerned about the situation becoming a distraction.
"I really think he's someone who's built to play in Toronto with the type of personality he has and how he handles things," said Tavares.
Tavares played through a contract year with the New York Islanders during the 2017-18 season. After the Islanders missed the playoffs, Tavares became an unrestricted free agent and signed a seven-year deal with his hometown team.
"I did that, but I think our situations are drastically different," Tavares stressed. "Almost every player is in their own unique environment ... You hope to get things done quickly and fast, but sometimes they can take some time."
The Leafs made their leadership group – captain Tavares and alternate captains Morgan Rielly, Matthews and Mitch Marner – available to the media on Wednesday. Nylander is expected to meet with the media following practice on Thursday.
"I don't have any doubt that he loves playing here and he feels comfortable here," said Rielly. "He likes his teammates. He likes what we got going on. As a teammate, you just support him. He's been working hard. He looks great on the ice. With him, you don't have any doubt he'll be ready to play."
After signing gregarious fourth-line forward Ryan Reaves on July 1, Treliving said he heard the Leafs room was quiet and he wanted to inject some personality. But Rielly, who is the longest-serving Leaf, doesn't think that has been a problem in the past.
"Not in my opinion," the 29-year-old defenceman said. "We have a great group. We have a core group of guys that have been together for a while and feel extremely comfortable around each other both when things are going poorly and when things are going well. That has never been an issue in my eyes. We have good leadership. I think there's good communication with players and also between players and coaches."
During a media availability on Monday at the team's charity golf tournament, Reaves boasted that the Leafs dressing room would no longer be quiet.
"We have a great, already, group of guys that are vocal, that are very talkative and that keeps the energy positive," said Marner. "But to just add on to that is always beneficial and always helps."
Reaves certainly isn't shy and said he planned to chirp his new teammates immediately, but Tavares feels there is a method to how the 36-year-old creates energy off the ice.
"He is loud but he's a very smart and intelligent guy," Tavares noted. "I think he understands the dynamic of the league, of the game, of the locker room, different people, different players so it's been fun getting to know him here and being around him."
After signing John Klingberg on July 1, Treliving admitted he was still looking to change the mix on Toronto's blue line. However, he didn't make any more significant additions during the summer.
"In the past I've had bigger defences than we have here, but I like the defence that we have," Treliving said. "When you break them down individually, I think there are some really good parts here."
Rielly is joined by fellow returnees T.J. Brodie, Timothy Liljegren, Mark Giordano and Jake McCabe.
"I think it is underrated," Treliving said of the team's defence. "As with any part of your team, you are looking at ways to be better. 'Can you be better' is sometimes interpreted as needing to bring in a truckload of new people and make it better. Getting better can also come from internal growth."
It will certainly help if Rielly can build on his excellent playoff performance. He picked up 12 points in 11 playoff games after recording just 41 points in 65 regular season games.
"I was wanting to play really well based on me being a bit disappointed in how I played at points in the season," Rielly said. "I felt like it was a good chance to step up. In terms of carrying that over into a new season, I mean, that's obviously been my focus ... I have no doubt that once we get going here I'll be able to get back into that form."
Rielly played with burly veteran Luke Schenn in the playoffs. Schenn left via free agency as did Justin Holl, who led the Leafs defence in minutes played last season.
After signing Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi in July, Treliving had an interesting way of describing what the wingers would bring.
"I think the term he used was adding a little 'snot' to our game," said Tavares.
"All the guys we added are great," said Marner. "All bring a lot of piss and vinegar or snot, I guess, everyone's been saying."
"I should probably not use the term 'snot,'" Treliving admitted with a smile. "I have heard a lot about that."
The GM clarified that playing with 'snot' means more than, well, being snotty.
"I know there has been lots of talk about the abrasiveness, but these are also good players," Treliving said. "They are players who can play inside. They are two players who can get to the hard areas when the games matter the most."
Bertuzzi is expected to start on the top line beside Matthews and Marner, per Johnston.
"It never hurts to have a little extra muscle in your lineup," Matthews said of Treliving's additions.
Matt Murray will be sidelined for the foreseeable future.
"It has been determined that Matt is going to require a significant surgery which will require a significant rehab," Treliving announced. "That is going to take place in the next week. For Matt's privacy, I am just going to leave it at that. I will update everybody once Matt is through that. It has been determined now for a while that Matt would have to go this path. We are looking forward to getting him better and onto the path for recovery."
Will the 29-year-old goalie be able to play this season?
"We are going to see," Treliving said. "It is going to be a significant rehab. Matt is a good goalie. We are not necessarily focused on time frames right now. It is about getting it done and getting it done correctly. We have to start the process of rehabbing. We will see where that leads us. This is months, not days or weeks. We will see where it gets to. There is certainly potentially a chance."
Murray has not played since April 2, but was healthy enough to dress in the playoffs.
"He aggravated some stuff over the summer," Treliving revealed.
Defenceman Jake Muzzin will miss the entire 2023-24 season, the final year of his contract, due to a cervical spine injury, Treliving confirmed.
The first on-ice session at Leafs training camp will take place at 10 a.m. on Thursday.