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William Nylander’s year of career silenced his critics

LAS VEGAS – Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, perhaps more than anyone, knew William Nylander had a year like this in him.

Nylander averages better than a point per game, plays shorthanded, generates scoring opportunities with his skill and speed, and generally plays better and more engaged defensively en route to what should be a career year for the team. Swedish right winger.

“I think he handled the increased responsibilities very well,” said Keefe, who has coached Nylander both with the AHL Marlies and now with the Leafs. “Everyone wants to play more and what they want is to play in more situations. But when you are given those opportunities, you have to deliver.

Nylander’s commitment is so much more than what you see by watching him play. After all, he’s only averaging 36 seconds per game of penalty time. But that doesn’t diminish the time he added to his day.

“With the penalties only, getting on the ice and killing the penalties is part of it. But there’s this whole other element that you add: 82 games per season that you have to attend, ”said Keefe. “You add training meetings. You add time with the coach. It is a great responsibility. You add more to your plate than you need to think about in preparation for the game. There are a lot of things that go into these additional roles.

Nylander has never been one to say great things about himself. He’s calm and humble in interviews, letting his game – and sometimes his hair and fashion choices – speak for him. His teammates have long said he was misunderstood by a fan base who saw the talent and wanted more, and saw the contract and wanted him to take less.

Nonetheless, Nylander silenced his critics. He’s the player Nylander wants to be, a game changer. He was one of the few Leafs to get rave reviews after the playoff loss to the Montreal Canadiens, leading the Leafs with five goals and three assists. in seven games. And he’s grateful that he earned Keefe’s trust.

“Obviously that shows that he believes in me, in this area of ​​the game where we try not to score. So that means a lot, ”Nylander said. “And obviously that’s the area of ​​my game where I wanted to play. I just have to keep going like this.

Nylander made his debut for the Leafs almost five years ago on February 2, 2016, and scored his first goal on March 3 of the same season. He was considered a gifted offensive player with defensive weaknesses. This is no longer the case, often not just to kill penalties, but on the ice when the other team pulled the goalie out, hoping to score late to tie the game.

Morgan Rielly, the club’s longest-serving teammate and Nylander and Leaf, has seen the winger come a long way.

“There’s been a lot of growth, obviously,” Rielly said. “He’s a really hard working guy. He devotes a lot of time to it. And I mean, he’s been a two-way street guy with skill and top speed for a long time now. And so it’s great to hear that people have started to talk about him more. I think he gets the credit he deserves.

“So he plays in an exceptional way. He was a big part of our team. And obviously, he puts the puck at the back of the net. And his play with the puck is extremely difficult to defend.

So far, Nylander has averaged the most time on the ice per game (18:52) in his career. Heading into Wednesday night’s game in Arizona, he has 16 goals (second on the team behind Auston Matthews, 23) and 36 points, second behind Matthews’ 37. If he’s playing all season and producing points at his current rate of 1.06 per game, he’s easily eclipsing his career high of 61 points.

And more specifically for the analytical-minded Maple Leafs: his expected goals for (28.06, per exceed the expected goals against (20.28) in a 5v5 game, an xGF percentage of 58, 05. For those who do not have an analytical mind, this is fine. (Matthews at 62.43 percent, and Michael Bunting – 59.57 – also show up well in this particular metric.)

Now 25, it’s safe to say that Nylander is reaching the peak of his career while pushing up the “all-time” lists in various franchise stats. Nylander entered Wednesday’s game in Vegas with 299 career points as Leaf, 19 short of Paul Henderson, who is 38th in franchise history. His 24 game-winning goals tied him for 22nd with Max Bentley and Ace Bailey. With Wednesday’s game in Arizona, he will tie Doug Gilmour in games played for the Maple Leafs at 393, and he will tie Vince Damphousse at 394 on Saturday in St. Louis, good for the 68th all-time in blue and white.

And Keefe thinks he has more to give.

“With all of our players, we are looking for consistency,” Keefe said. “We want this all the time. I think this is the next phase for Will again. We’ve had more this season than previous seasons. His attack was obviously huge for us. We want each of our guys to get better. We want him to get to the point where he has an impact on the game more than just an attack. “

And Nylander agrees with that sentiment.

“I’m trying to improve that consistency,” said Nylander. “I think that has been a bit of a key factor this year compared to other years and I want to continue to develop that.”


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