We’ll start with the player-speak:
“The legs felt fine.”
That’s William Nylander.
“He looked good. Really happy he’s back. Too bad he couldn’t score, but I feel like he looked fast and skilled.”
That’s Andreas Johnsson.
Now, the coach-speak:
“Obviously, he’s got skill, on a few regroups and that. In open ice, you have that, but in the battles, you don’t have any juice. You just…you haven’t been in ’em.”
Gold star to Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock for the most honest assessment of William Nylander’s 2018-19 debut. Five days after signing his six-year, $45-million extension mere minutes before the season deadline, he found himself back in his customary spot on Auston Matthews’ right side. Nylander may say his legs felt right, and teammates like Johnsson will always be complimentary when put on the spot, but this was a case where even analytics-minded thinkers likely know Nylander didn’t pass the eye test. He looked like he was skating in mud at times. He lost board battles. When the Leafs needed to play with pace and urgency mounting a three-goal comeback to salvage a point in a 5-4 overtime loss to Detroit, Babcock had to nail Nylander to the bench for most of the third period and all but a few shifts in the extra frame. No hard feelings, as Nylander said after the game he knew to only expect about 10 minutes of ice time. He ended up at 12:29, and even that looked like it might’ve been a bit too much, too soon.
“Oh, I want him to play a ton,” Babcock said wishfully. “I just want to get him out there and get him going. But any time you’ve missed that amount of hockey, it’ll be hard for him. I talked to ‘Matty’ about (coming back from his shoulder injury), too. They’re both gonna have to do extra, we’re gonna do it every practice, and they’ll crawl their way back to being the players they’re capable of being.”
It’s one thing for Matthews to miss 14 games after a sizzling start and rejoin the team. It’s another for Nylander to parachute back into NHL hockey for the first time since Toronto’s Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins last April. The Leafs and their fans would thus be wise to temper their expectations – not just for a game or two but for the rest of this month. After seeing the spark he got from putting Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen on Matthews’ wings in the third period Thursday, might Babcock try something different and ease Nylander back into the lineup in the bottom six the next game?
Nylander will obviously help this team the long term with his speed, creativity, takeaways and ability to skate the puck out of trouble, but accommodating his presence seemed to discombobulate the Leafs’ lineup last night. When he was on the ice for 9:19 of 5-on-5 play, the shot attempt margin was 14-8 for Detroit, and the Leafs allowed eight high-danger shot attempts while generating zero. So it might make sense to make Nylander a background player instead of a key performer for a few games.
The upcoming schedule will test this team: a five-game, two-week road trip that includes visits to Boston and Tampa Bay. If the Leafs want to field an optimal lineup, they may want to eschew any worry of bruising Nylander's ego. There’s also little reason to rush him considering they’re 20-8-1 with zero regulation defeats in their past six games.
Think molehill, not mountain. Nylander’s return was an event, but his struggles were a non-event. The problem is temporary.