TORONTO – It’s a rare occasion now that William Nylander gets to play against his younger brother Alex in the NHL, but as the Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks prepare to clash on Saturday, the elder Nylander can’t help laughing over the many heated competitions dotting their past.
“Whatever we were doing, if it was soccer, baseball or whatever, it was always a battle,” Nylander said after the Leafs’ team meeting on Saturday. “In ping-pong we would end up in fights. But that was just part of it growing up. Every time I play him now, it's very special and lots of fun. We went out to dinner last night, and we were joking about it. We're looking forward to today.”
The Nylander boys come from athletic stock, sons of former NHLer Michael (who will be in attendance at Saturday’s game) and siblings to aspiring tennis pro Jacqueline. Nylander freely admits to “getting [my] butt kicked” when taking the court against his sister, but is less jovial about Alex holding this season’s bragging rights after Chicago topped Toronto 5-4 in their first meeting on Nov. 10.
William scored twice in that game while Alex didn’t make it onto the scoresheet, but those details hardly matter compared to the final score.
“I mean, winning is what counts,” Nylander shrugged. “He’s had them since the last game so we got to get that back.”
Should that happen, Nylander is primed to be very involved. Since the calendar turned to 2020, Nylander has seven points (four goals, three assists) in seven games, adding to his full season total of 42 points (21 goals, 21 assists).
Recently the winger has been finding his way even more to the middle of the ice, and now leads the NHL in goals scored from the net-front area with 17. But while the shift has influenced his output, it’s not something Nylander was particularly focused on changing.
“I haven't really thought about that part of my game,” he admitted. “It's just that you know where most of the goals are scored, so the more you’re around that area, the higher the chances are you'll end up scoring. So you try to find your way there.”
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe thinks there’s a bit more to his success around the net than Nylander cops to, so much so he’s had the winger take over as the net-front presence on the team’s top power play unit.
“His timing is right on,” Keefe said. “He hangs around in those spaces, so I think his intelligence and his instincts with reading the play and when it's going to come [are strong]. The [goal] that stands out for me recently was that pass from [Pierre] Engvall the other day; on the backside it looked like the puck was going to leave the zone, but he just kind of hangs back and reads that he might get it back.”
Still, there’s a certain balance to be struck there for the instances where Nylander doesn’t get the puck back, and then isn’t in a great spot as the play moves the other way, but that’s just one part of a learning curve that Nylander is otherwise appearing to ace.
“He’s figuring out that [spot is] where a lot of goals come from and he's in a really good area to get there,” said Zach Hyman. “And he’s being strong [on the puck] and putting the puck in the net so he's been great.”
Nylander has also embraced his new position on the power play, in part because it allows for him to be versatile, and even switch around occasionally with John Tavares in the middle of the ice.
“You don't have to really be stuck in front of the net,” he insisted. “You can also be an outlet down low, so it's been good.”
When the puck drops on Saturday’s game, Nylander will no doubt try to spy his brother on the other side of the ice, but Alex isn’t the only Blackhawk that’s pulling his attention. Nylander admits to being a long-time fan of Chicago winger Patrick Kane, and still finds new things about him to admire.
“The way he played the game, the way he saw the game; he’s the best scoring player of the last decade,” Nylander said. “You know the level [he's on] right there. There are obviously things that you notice more playing against him versus on TV, just small little things, but he's got that elite skill level.”
Now 48 games into his own season, Nylander is just one goal away from matching his career-high of 22, tallied through 82 games as a rookie in 2016-17. He's also one game away from the Leafs' bye week and the NHL All-Star Break, seven days away from hockey that will start with a trip for Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Frederik Andersen and Jake Muzzin to play golf at Augusta National.
"Muzz is probably the best out of all of us, but we'll try to beat him there, it'll be fun," Nylander said. "We haven't played in a while so it'll be fun to get away and play a course like that."
And when he returns to the ice, Nylander's hoping not to have skipped a beat. While this year hasn’t been without a few bumps in the road for him, including a second period benching from Keefe on Dec. 21 after one too many defensive lapses, Nylander has seemingly found his way now to a comfortable consistency.
“He's a good player, and he's putting himself in good spots,” Keefe said. “I think we've had the puck a lot as a team too, and when we do that I feel like it benefits a player like William, and he seems to be confident in that sense that he's going to have the puck a lot.”