TORONTO — The last time William Nylander killed penalties, it was quite possibly a form of punishment.
“It was during practice [last April] in Vancouver, the day after I missed that [team] meeting,” Nylander recounted on Saturday, ahead of Toronto’s final preseason game against Ottawa. “I don’t know [if those were related], but it had been awhile since I’d done it before that; I couldn’t tell you when.”
Nylander won't have that problem anymore. The Maple Leafs' winger has gone from punishment to promotion, being groomed to take a bigger role on Toronto’s penalty kill for the coming season.
Coach Sheldon Keefe has been ruminating on the idea since Toronto's first-round playoff exit last May. He broached the topic with Nylander then and was met with enthusiasm, which Keefe is pleased to see bleeding into Nylander's preparation for the gig.
“I think he's been great; he’s embraced it,” Keefe said. “When I spoke with him about it, he had no doubts and no questions, he was ready go. He's been attentive in the meetings, he's asked questions. So it's been really good. These are the kind of things that pre-season is for. Once we get rolling here in the regular season, we'll see how it all shakes out.”
To Nylander, the appeal of killing penalties is that it translates to more ice time. He’s motivated by guys like Mitch Marner who are able to stay engaged throughout games by virtue of appearing on both the power play and penalty kill.
“I've always thought that it would be good, especially when there's a lot of PKs in game,” Nylander said. “It's good to get out there to get the legs going and get moving versus sitting on the bench for an extended period of time. And you're trying to keep the puck out of the net too, which is the most important thing. I was happy that they brought it up. I'm looking forward to it.”
Keefe has been a party to Nylander’s development since the winger came to North America, coaching him with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies from 2014-16, before taking over the Leafs’ bench in 2019. So Keefe knew from watching Nylander’s evolution last season that he was ready for more responsibility.
“I feel like he took big steps in terms of his attention to detail defensively, and his play without the puck in general,” Keefe said. “He was consistently more competitive on the puck, and then you see his skill set within that - he's strong, he's quick, he's got good instincts, he's got a really good stick to pick off pucks, and of course he's dangerous in transition. So we've just seen some growth in him, and when we see growth in a player, we feel like his role needs to grow as well to reflect that.”
The Leafs’ penalty kill is also going through a period of overall transformation, starting with its structure. Gone is former coach Dave Hakstol, who ran that unit the last two seasons, and his replacement Dean Chynoweth has implemented a fresh philosophy. The hope is that Chynoweth can guide the Leafs’ penalty kill to more consistent success than it had last season, when Toronto finished 24th (78.5 per cent) overall shorthanded.
Alex Kerfoot previously described Chynoweth’s vision for the penalty kill as, “if we’re going to get beat, we’re going to get beat throughout aggressiveness, not passiveness.” To make that work, the Leafs will need a stable of players available to contribute.
“The way we want to kill penalties this season is going to require a lot more pressure, which is going to take a lot more more energy from [individuals],” Keefe said. “So we're going to need more guys to do it. We've got a lot of different options there, we’ve got different people that could contribute there at different times. We're trying to give ourselves as many opportunities [as possible] to utilize the lineup and the depth in different situations and it's a competition for those positions as well.”
Keefe identified Ondrej Kase and Auston Matthews as other new players he’d like to see killing penalties this year. Kase has gotten some reps already in the preseason, and if Matthews hadn’t missed so much time rehabbing a wrist injury, he would have been involved in a similar capacity from the get-go.
It’s all part of Keefe’s plan to maximize the Leafs’ best talents.
“Maybe there's an endless string of penalties and you don't want your players sitting for too long and you want to get them out there feeling comfortable,” Keefe said. “So we just have this opportunity [in preseason] to gain that confidence that they can do it, and that the coaches believe in them. I think that's a really healthy thing for our team.”
Nylander is certainly all-in on the assignment, and ready to test his skills in a regular season game. Toronto has been approved to house a capacity crowd for the home opener at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday, and there’s nothing Nylander would like more than to show off the fruits of his recent efforts.
I've been wanting to get going for real since camp started,” he said. “So it'll be nice to get going with the fans and everything back, it's going to be a good time. I feel pretty good. But camp is camp, and preseason is preseason. Now I have to translate that into [what’s next].”