TORONTO — Maple Leafs winger William Nylander will remain in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol until at least late next week, after exposure to a potentially positive case of the virus.
The forward informed the team about the possible exposure, which came via a close contact outside the club, before Wednesday’s game against Montreal. He was immediately placed in isolation and must remain there for a minimum of seven days while further tests are conducted.
That means Nylander will miss at least three more games in the coming days. But what matters most to Nylander’s teammates is his continued good health.
“From what I've heard, the tests [for Nylander] have come back negative, which is a great sign,” said Mitch Marner after Toronto’s practice on Friday. “He obviously wants to be with the team. But we all want to be able to do our part, make sure we're wearing our masks and taking care of each other. That's what we're doing.”
The NHL releases a list of players who are unavailable to their team due to COVID protocols each day at 5 p.m. ET. So far, Nylander is the only player on Toronto’s list.
While Nylander may not have returned a positive test, his teammates are confident in the measures put in place to prevent a potential spread of the virus. That includes everything from multiple dressing rooms being used to keep players adequately spaced apart, to not lingering or socializing in lounge areas.
“That's why we put a protocol [together], for these instances where there might be close contact or whatever it may be,” said Morgan Rielly. “[Nylander] is doing what he has to do, what he's been told to do, and as a team we just have to focus on what we can do.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe said not much has changed for the Leafs in their day-to-day activities since Nylander’s exposure was revealed, nor has he sensed any unease.
Nylander did participate in Toronto’s full morning skate on Wednesday before finding out about his close contact’s potential positive case. But because the Leafs had come off an eight-day road trip the night before, during which daily tests were conducted, Nylander’s possible incubation period would not have been long enough to make him contagious.
“I think the group is fine,” said Keefe. “I think they feel comfortable with where everything is at; they understand what's happening. Other than needing to monitor Will and not having him around here, in terms of our environment in our facility, guys feel relatively normal in the sense of how it's been with the team. [We continue to be] smart with the protocols and nothing's changed in that sense.”
Rielly said he spoke with Nylander after Wednesday’s game and that the forward is holding up well.
“He was doing alright. He’s just going to do whatever he's got to do,” Rielly said. “He wants us to win, so he'll be watching. But I think he's doing okay. As a team, we're going to worry about playing a game tomorrow [against Ottawa] and doing what we can today to prepare.”
That includes making adjustments to the lineup through at least these next three games without Nylander (after Saturday, Toronto faces Montreal on Monday and Calgary on Tuesday).
Keefe has decided to try moving Alex Galchenyuk to the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and sliding Zach Hyman onto John Tavares’ line with Ilya Mikheyev.
Galchenyuk has played primarily with Tavares and Nylander for the last 10 games, tallying one goal and three assists. Hyman has been excellent on the Matthews line of late, with seven points in his past six games, but Keefe felt Nylander’s absence opened a door to trying something new.
“Not having Nylander breaks up that Tavares line that we had liked,” Keefe said. "So, I think it's just a chance for us now to get [another] look at Galchenyuk. He’s been playing very well and has paired very well with John, and now that we feel pretty good about how that works for us, we want to see what this [other combination] would look like.”
Keefe also had to juggle his power-play units. Special teams work took up most of Wednesday’s practice as the Leafs tried out new groupings. Jason Spezza stepped in with Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Rielly, while Hyman moved to join Galchenyuk, Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton and Jake Muzzin on the second unit.
The Leafs have scored just one power-play goal in their past 13 games (1-for-33). Keefe hopes the extra attention at practice and the shift in personnel will help spark a change.
“We really like Hyman at net front, so that's part of [the shuffling],” Keefe said. “Then just with the line changes. Having Tavares up with the one unit, if you don’t have Hyman there as well, when you get a power play, you're more likely to have fresh people [when you separate players from the same line]. So, that's really a big part of it now that we've moved [guys around]; it just flows better that way.”