‘Comfortable’ Nylander handles heat with ease – on and off the ice
The Maple Leafs practised at the Ford Performance Centre in Toronto on Wednesday ahead of Friday afternoon’s game against the Blackhawks in Chicago.
William Nylander seemed to be everywhere last week in Sweden. On the ice, he starred in a pair of Leafs wins. Off the ice, he did a series of interviews including an appearance on a popular television talk show. His sleeveless wardrobe choice had teammates chuckling.
"I can't say that I'm surprised," quipped defenceman Mark Giordano. "Wearing a tank top on live TV, If someone was going to do it, it would be Willy. He just rolls with however he's comfortable."
"I decided to wear it a while ago," Nylander said with a smile. "It felt simple, easy."
Things have looked simple and easy on the ice for Nylander, who has 12 goals and 15 assists during a 17 game point streak. He has matched Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid, who started the 2020-21 season on a 17-game heater, for the longest season-opening streak among active players.
It feels like this could be a watershed moment for Nylander, who's in the final year of his contract. He's always been under the microscope in Toronto, but fellow forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares have generated plenty of their own headlines.
Last week in Sweden, Nylander had top-billing and proved more than worthy.
"Great to see him thrive in the spotlight, which he's done here for a long time, but certainly a unique chance to do it in his hometown," said Tavares. "He just tried to soak it all in and when it was time to go out there and compete and perform, [he] wanted to be a difference maker like he's been all year."
With the Leafs trailing the Detroit Red Wings 2-0 on Friday, Nylander took over. He scored a goal and assisted on two others during a comeback win. On Sunday, the Leafs squandered a two-goal lead in the third period before Nylander came through with a beautiful overtime goal.
"It was pretty cool to watch," said Giordano. "With all those friends, family, people there watching, he knows the focus is on him and everybody else in the rink does, and he was still able to really carry us offensively and have big moments."
Nylander's ability to handle the heat is a big reason why he's thrived in Toronto. He never seems to get caught up in the hype. On Wednesday, Nylander already seemed ready to move on from his heroic homecoming.
"It was fun," the winger said, "but nice to have two days off and just relax."
And now it's time for another homecoming game on Friday in Chicago. Nylander's father, Michael Nylander, played for the Blackhawks from 1999 to 2002.
"Spent a lot of time there growing up," Nylander said. "Me and my brother's old friends are there so lots of fun."
Nylander has dominated the Blackhawks with nine goals and nine assists in 12 career games. He's never been held off the scoresheet at the United Center.
Of course, Nylander has looked dominant in any building he's played in this season.
"He just feels his game at a different level," said Tavares. "We all see it."
Nylander scored a career-high 40 goals last season. This year, he's on pace for 58.
"He's in a groove right now," Giordano said. "We just want to keep him going and keep supporting him. When a guy's going like that you just let him do his thing."
One staple of Nylander's early-season success has been making things happen from high in the offensive zone.
"Coming down and looking at the net, you got all the options available," he said. "It gives you some more space and some more time to think about what you want to do."
So, why don't all players exploit that part of the ice?
"It is a dangerous area to be in," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "Not many players can play there and thrive. There are risks that come with it. If you turn the puck over in that space, it is a pretty dangerous opportunity going the other way. You have to find the timing and the pocket, and then you usually have to evade a check. That is what he does really well."
Keefe points out that many players and teams try to bait opponents to go high in the offensive zone because they know the potential for a transition chance is higher. But Nylander seems impervious to that pressure.
"When guys come to eventually close on him, he is comfortable challenging one-on-one, protecting the puck, and getting to safety if not into an area where he can generate a scoring chance," Keefe observed. "When he is at his best, Willy gets to that space and he turns it into something very positive for us."
Nylander's assist on the Tyler Bertuzzi goal on Friday started with some fancy footwork at the blue line.
"His one-on-one play is right up there with anyone in the league right now if not No. 1," said Giordano. "What I've been noticing this year is, like, his spins and turning away from guys, it doesn't look like he's skating really. He's gliding, but he's getting by guys. It's been pretty impressive."
Before practice on Wednesday, Tavares and Matthews did a skills session with player development staff member Patrick O'Sullivan. At the other end of the ice, Marner and Bertuzzi worked with player development staff member Denver Manderson. Nylander was in the neutral zone working alone on his edges and tight turns. Nylander will spend time on this at basically every practice.
"You can see his edge work and then his ability to change speed and accelerate when needed," said Tavares. "And it's not just being able to do that, it's the awareness and the timing of being able to manipulate the opponent and then to accelerate at the right time and have the puck control and poise to make the play when it's there. Yeah, he's just an elite, elite player."
It was a happy homecoming for Nylander, but not fellow Swede John Klingberg. The defenceman sat out both games in Stockholm. He told reporters he is dealing with an injury that has plagued him his whole career, but hit "rock bottom" early this season.
TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger reports that Klingberg is dealing with a hip injury.
The 31-year-old took part in Friday's morning skate in Stockholm before leaving practice early on Saturday. He did not take part in Wednesday's practice and will not play in the two games this week.
"No update on him other than to say he is continuing to work through things," Keefe said. "We will have something for you when something has changed. At this point, there is no change in his status."
On Saturday, Keefe told reporters that Klingberg's injury appeared to be trending toward a long-term situation.
Klingberg was able to play in Toronto's last game before the trip to Sweden.
Conor Timmins, who sustained a lower-body injury during a pre-season game on Sept. 29, appears close to returning. The right-shot defenceman skated on the third pair at practice alongside William Lagesson and also quarterbacked the second power-play unit.
"Today was a real fast and competitive practice for him," said Keefe. "It was at a much higher pace than anything we had when we were over in Sweden. That was a good test for him. We will see how he responds tomorrow and make the determination from there."
With Klingberg and Timothy Liljegren (high ankle sprain) sidelined, the Leafs have been icing an all-lefty defence with Jake McCabe and Lagesson playing their off side along with T.J. Brodie, who has done that most of his career.
"It's been a little bit of an adjustment especially that first game coming off injury," McCabe told reporters in Sweden. "Over my career obviously I've just taken thousands more reps on the left side, frankly."
After missing six games with a groin injury, McCabe finished minus-2 in his first game back against the Calgary Flames on Nov. 10. Since then, McCabe has been a plus player in three straight games.
"If anything being on the right side just forces you to skate a little bit more, which helps my game," he said. "So, definitely getting a little more comfortable."
At Wednesday's practice, McCabe continued to skate on the right side of the second pair beside Giordano.
The Leafs decided to take two full days off after returning from Sweden on Sunday night.
"The only issue I've had is I wake up super early," said goalie Joseph Woll. "It's hard to sleep in. Monday I woke up at sunrise. Yesterday I woke up around seven. But I don't feel that tired. I feel pretty good."
What was the first practice back like?
"Definitely rested, fresh," said Tavares, "but you feel a little heavier than usual."
"Really good, honestly," said 21-year-old winger Matthew Knies. "Getting two days off the ice was pretty big for our group to rebalance your body and get some treatment done. My legs felt great."
Keefe incorporated a conditioning skate in the middle of the workout and liked how the group responded overall.
"The guys have come back with a lot of energy," he said. "It seems like they are more like themselves and the recovery has gone well if today's practice is any indication ... How they bounce back and go at it again tomorrow will be a strong indicator for us of where exactly they are at."
The Leafs are wrapping up a 12-day stretch, which featured just the two games overseas. In Stockholm, all four teams were dealing with the same issues. Toronto's upcoming opponents, though, have all been in their usual rhythm.
"Tomorrow is a really important practice," said Giordano. "Really try to force yourself to get up to that tempo and that speed you need to be at especially with an afternoon game coming on Friday."
Leafs assistant coach Guy Boucher served as Ottawa Senators bench boss when that team went to Sweden in November 2017. The Senators won both games overseas before going on an ugly 1-10-2 dive upon their return to North America. Keefe has spoken to Boucher and other coaches to figure out the best way to deal with the aftermath of the European excursion. What did he learn?
"Not underrating it and giving it the proper attention that it deserves," Keefe said of the fatigue factor. "It is a real thing that you have to manage. You can't just expect the guys to push through and grind through without us being really smart and deliberate about doing what we can to take care of them. It is just about being really purposeful in what we are doing and giving them every opportunity to bounce back."
But, per usual, Nylander is nonplussed.
"It's better to fly this way than going to Sweden," the 27-year-old said. "It's easier to get into the time zone and everything coming this way so I'm not too worried about that."
Giordano, Bertuzzi and defenceman Simon Benoit all wore neck guards at practice.
"It feels like you're a lot warmer out there," Giordano said. "A little bit uncomfortable having something on your neck when you're not used to it. I think the key is just try to get used to something that is relatively comfortable and then go from there and keep wearing it over and over again."
More and more players have been experimenting with neck protection in the wake of the tragic death of Nottingham Panthers forward Adam Johnson on Oct. 28.
"As a dad, for me, it's just an important message to the kids who are watching us on TV," said Giordano. "They see us trying it and maybe it will encourage some of the young kids or junior players to try it and go from there."
But it's not easy for NHL players to change their routine, especially in the middle of a season.
"It is a very personal thing, especially when we are in the midst of a season and guys are performing at the highest level with lots of pressure and expectations," Keefe said. "They are very particular about their gear and stuff like that, but the more players that do it, it makes them safer. It is also an important message to young people. It is an important piece of equipment."
"I haven't worn a neck guard since World Juniors," said Knies. "I'll try it out and see what it feels like and make my decision from there."
Knies plans to reach out to Warroad Hockey to see what neck protection is available. Equipment companies have been scrambling to meet the new demand.
"We've just gotten some stock in," Tavares said. "It's been hard to get some of that stuff throughout the league and in the hockey world so I only assume it's going to become more and more common as more options become available and finding the right fit."
With two practice days before the next game, Wednesday seemed like a good time for Giordano to try it out.
"The trainers have a bunch of different options," the 40-year-old said. "There's ones that are built into shirts, ones that are standalone and there's a couple different shirt options. For me, those are the best ones to try but we'll see how all the different ones feel."
Lines at Wednesday's practice:
Knies - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Nylander
Robertson - Domi - Jarnkrok
McMann - Kampf - Gregor
Rielly - Brodie
Giordano - McCabe
Lagesson - Timmins
Special teams work at Wednesday's practice:
Power-play unit No. 1
Rielly, Matthews, Nylander, Marner, Tavares \
Power-play unit No. 2
Timmins, Domi, Jarnkrok, Knies, Bertuzzi