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Overlooked Nylander has been crucial to Maple Leafs' success

While Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner get most of the press, William Nylander has improved all aspects of his game, and been key to getting the Leafs on the cusp of the playoffs.

With a goal against Columbus, William Nylander tied the Maple Leafs' franchise record for a rookie point streak at nine games. But Nylander doesn’t get into a position to do that this season without a lot of work, and folks I’ve talked to from Sweden say the youngster had a much more focused summer than he did the previous year.

Tons of attention has been heaped upon the Maple Leafs’ rookie class this season, but the lion’s share of the press has gone to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (and deservedly so). But Nylander, who skated in 22 NHL games last season, has been crucial to Toronto’s recent run of good play. It hasn’t always been easy – the dynamic center/right winger has been moved around the lineup, benched for short periods and had his minutes limited at times – but coach Mike Babcock has also praised the progress that Nylander has made to his overall game this season.

“I think every part of my game has improved,” Nylander said. “I’m trying to get established here and play well every game.”

Nylander was the first key forward drafted by the Leafs in their rebuild, going eighth overall in 2014. He jumped from Sweden’s Modo squad to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies the next season and immediately put up numbers.

Last year was split between the Marlies and Maple Leafs and once again, Nylander had no problem putting up offense. But the AHL team stalled in the playoffs, barely squeaking by an inferior Albany team in the second round before getting pushing aside in five by Hershey in the conference final. For a Marlies squad that seemed to have all the elements for a championship run, it was troubling. According to a team source, some of the youngsters didn’t see the Calder Cup as all that important.

Nylander, now powering through his first NHL playoff push, saw some of that apathy from his competition last year, too.

“This one – every team you play is good,” he said. “It’s not like the AHL when some teams are completely out of it and don’t really care anymore. Here, the teams that aren’t in it are trying to beat the teams fighting for a spot, so every game is important, for sure.”

Nylander’s 5-on-5 play has been important to his growth, though his most fetching attribute this season has been on the power play. His 24 points with the man advantage ties him for 10th in the NHL, alongside big names such as Erik Karlsson and Jamie Benn. And he does so by orchestrating beauty, not shoving the puck in through a scrum (though, to be fair, a goal is a goal no matter how you score it).

“It’s fun; the power play is important,” Nylander said. “We’ve had two units that have played really well and that will help us down the stretch to win some important games.”

For a team that has overachieved this season, the power play has been quite crucial. Toronto ranks second in the NHL behind Buffalo (who knew?), clicking at a 23.8 per cent clip. It’s no secret that the Maple Leafs are better offensively than they are defensively, so the contributions of a player such as Nylander are obvious.

As the core of the team matures, the Leafs will naturally have to get better at preventing and suppressing shots against, but Toronto really is playing with house money right now.

The race for a playoff berth is nearly over and the Leafs find themselves in a tenuous but positive position. Making it would be a great reward for everyone, but especially important for the rookies and the experiences they would accrue, even if it’s just for one series.

Should they miss, the Maple Leafs will still find themselves playing important games right to the end of the 82-game schedule, something that hasn’t happened for a couple of years. Nylander has already seen the benefits of hard work, so now it’s just a matter of when he gets his NHL playoff payoff: this season, or next.



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