Nylander looks to limit contract talk as centre experiment begins
The Maple Leafs practised in two groups at the Ford Performance Centre on Thursday.
William Nylander addressed his contract situation following his first practice of training camp. He doesn't plan to do it again.
"I want to be here and this is where I want to play," the winger reiterated, "but I'm going to let my agent [Lewis Gross] and [general manager] Brad [Treliving] take care of that. I'm not going to answer any more questions about my contract."
How does he maintain focus as the questions about his future persist?
"I still have one more year left so that's just how I'm thinking about it," Nylander said on Thursday. "I've only known Toronto and this is the place I want to be."
Nylander has played all eight of his National Hockey League seasons with the Leafs. Before that he was with the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League. The 27-year-old Swede has thrived in the intense spotlight here in part because of his seemingly unshakeable self-belief.
"He is extremely confident in himself and very focused," said coach Sheldon Keefe, who has mentored Nylander since their time together in the AHL. "I would never describe Willy as distracted by anything."
But playing through a contract year can be tricky. Before the 2017-18 campaign, which was the last one in his entry-level deal, Nylander told TSN Hockey Insider Chris Johnston that he didn't want to negotiate during the season. Asked if he's open to talks continuing throughout this season, Nylander simply repeated that he would leave things up to his agent and Treliving.
"You just want to go out there and have fun every day," Nylander said of his approach. "I think that's important. You want to put pressure on yourself, too, to play well, but obviously you got to have fun every day."
Nylander appeared to be having fun on Thursday even during the gruelling conditioning skate, which has become a staple of Keefe camps.
"He was terrific in our skate to start with and really pushed things and led the way," Keefe said. "It is built to be miserable. It is miserable. We like to lead with the hard things."
When he wasn't leading his group, Nylander was hammering the boards with his stick to encourage teammates.
"It's not too bad," Nylander insisted with a grin. "Well, it is annoying. It's nice to have it over with, for sure."
Players took turns skating up and down the ice for about 20 minutes.
Sheldon Keefe whistles Leafs training camp underway— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) September 21, 2023
Starting with a conditioning skate pic.twitter.com/WMErxTeza8
After the conditioning skate, the players left the ice for a meeting before returning for the main practice. It marked the start of a new chapter in Nylander's NHL career as he gets his first extended look as a centre.
"Fun," Nylander said of the change. "I'm excited. Just happy to be back and I told Sheldon wherever he wants me to play I'll play."
The move, if it works, will make the Leafs deeper down the middle. But it will be a challenge for a player, who has never been known for his 200-foot game.
"It's a little bit of an adjustment in D-zone," Nylander acknowledged. "It's just knowing the system a little better and when to jump and put pressure and when to maybe not put so much pressure ... But if I play throughout training camp and get games I think it will help me get adjusted."
The Leafs are insulating Nylander by having him play between Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok.
"You have two guys who have played centre and can take on some responsibilities low in the zone," Keefe said. "Domi is good on faceoffs and can take left-handed faceoffs. There is a good fit there. Domi and Willy are both really dynamic on the rush. Jarnkrok does a good job of getting to the net, getting available and getting open. Jarny is a worker. He is going to work and do a lot of work defensively for the group. The elements made sense to me that way."
Domi has bounced between centre and wing throughout his career and believes Nylander will make a smooth transition.
"It won't be an issue for him at all," Domi said. "He's such a good skater, right. A smart player and all three of us have played centre at some point in this league. The game is so fast nowadays that whoever is first back, and that changes from shift to shift, you play low and re-adjust from there."
And there could be some advantages for Nylander.
"He's really good transitioning the puck," highlighted defenceman John Klingberg, who played with Nylander at two World Championships. "So him carrying the puck through the middle of the ice is obviously something the opposition's going to feel is dangerous. I think it will fit him pretty good."
"Maybe I get the puck a little bit more in the middle of the ice," said Nylander, "but playing on the wing maybe I get more breakaways and stuff like that so it's a little give and take."
Wherever he plays, Nylander is aiming to build on last year's career-best 40 goals and 87 points.
"Every season I try to get better and better so we're going for a better year this year," he said.
Tyler Bertuzzi is getting the first chance to play on the left side of the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
"It's a big opportunity," Bertuzzi said. "I won't take it lightly ... They're workhorses. It will be a fun opportunity to play with them and learn from them and watch them do their thing."
Michael Bunting, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes in the summer, spent much of the last two seasons with Matthews on the top line. Like Bunting, Bertuzzi plans to set up shop in and around the net.
"Get in front, grind it out a bit and try to create some space for those guys and just bring energy," he said of his mindset.
"I am not worried about him fitting in there," Keefe said. "He has a great skill-set. When the games start, I think you will see a lot of that. He is a gamer. His hockey sense is good. His skill-set fits well with those guys."
Bertuzzi readily admits he's never played with guys quite like Matthews, a two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner, and Marner, who produced 99 points and was nominated for the Selke Trophy last season. Bertuzzi is already marvelling at Marner's vision and passing ability.
"I'm going to have to glue my stick to the ice," he said with a chuckle. "It could come at any time, anywhere. It's cool."
Ilya Samsonov wore a big smile throughout Thursday's media session.
"I'm so excited to be here again," the 26-year-old goalie gushed. "One more year with an excellent team, excellent teammates and I'm happy to see everybody. I come maybe one month ago with my family. My mom is here. My dad is here. It's great for me. Yeah, I'm so excited and we're ready to work."
Samsonov insists there are no hard feelings following an arbitration hearing that led to another one-year contract.
"It's just a business," said Samsonov, who will earn $3.55 million this season, which is up from $1.8 million last year. "End of the day, it's just a business. I'm not sad about this. We prepared for this with my agent. I talked with Brad after court and a really nice discussion. It's in the past now."
Samsonov, who started a career-high 40 games last season and backstopped the Leafs to their first playoff series win since 2004, spent most of the summer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and put the time to good use.
"More yoga," he said. "I feel more comfortable right now, better shape a bit."
Samsonov will be debuting a new mask this season. He told designer David Gunnarsson that he wanted to do something "old school" and the final product looks like what Curtis Joseph once wore when he patrolled the crease in Toronto.
Samsonov and Joseph both attended the Leafs charity golf event on Monday.
"He said, 'This is unbelievable mask,'" Samsonov relayed with excitement. "Respect for him. He's unbelievable goalie and huge for Toronto."
Samsonov pointed out that the design also looks like the one Vesa Toskala had when he played in Toronto.
Defenceman T.J. Brodie did not take part in the conditioning skate.
"Brods is going through a tough time here in the last couple of weeks," Keefe said. "We are giving him some time with the loss of his father."
James (Jay) Brodie passed away on Sept. 4 after a hard-fought battle with cancer.
"It disrupted his training," Keefe said. "He hasn't skated as much as the other guys. We are sort of easing him back into it. We didn't want to expose him to that skate on Day 1."
Defenceman Simon Benoit missed practice due to back spasms.
Lines at Thursday's practices:
Bertuzzi - Matthews - Marner
Knies - Tavares - Lafferty
Hirvonen - Gambrell - Steeves
Cliffford - Minten - Ellis / Blandisi
McCabe - Klingberg
Giordano - Liljegren
Lajoie - Villeneuve
Rifai - Miller
Domi - Nylander - Jarnkrok
Robertson - Holmberg - Abruzzese
Gregor - Kampf - Reaves
Slavin - Cowan - Shaw /Tverberg
Rielly - Brodie
Kokkinen - Niemela
Lagesson - Timmins
Chadwick - Dillingham