William Nylander has become the scapegoat, and that’s sadly unsurprising

Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

We knew the honeymoon wasn’t going to last forever, but at the same time, not even the biggest pessimist would’ve expected things to begin to fall apart so quickly. It seems like every ambitious rebuild of any big-market sports team needs a fall person, a scapegoat, and while there was some hesitance to pick one out of a group of rookies and main-stayers, it appears one has been found by the greater populace.

To the shock of very few, I’m sure, that scapegoat is 20-year-old William Nylander. It was predictable as hell, but that doesn’t make it make it any less frustrating.

If we’re being honest about the whole thing, the rise of the Nylander gossip isn’t sudden. It’s coming out of hibernation, as takes regarding the Calgary-born Swede were rampant from the moment he was drafted.

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From Michael Traikos, June 27th, 2014:

The big question is whether Nylander, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 169 pounds and whose stock might have fallen because of concerns over a reported me-first attitude, can put it all together. If he can, the Leafs will clearly benefit. But at least the team, which has played it safe in recent years, is taking a chance and trying to find a potential franchise player rather than someone with limited upside.

In Traikos’ defence, he was far from the first to bring the topic up; he’s just one of the very few who has a draft-day take posted in a major outlet still available for public consumption. Speculation that Nylander was a “diva” with attitude problems and a sense of entitlement was rampant in North America leading up to draft day, particularly due to his decision to leave Allsvenskan team Södertälje SK in favour of an arrangement with SHL giant MODO Hockey, which saw him get loaned out to Rögle BK when his father Michael joined them. Once Michael left, he was loaned back to Södertälje to put up some points ahead fo his draft year.

One could see how that would lead to concerns about him putting himself first. On the other hand, he found a way to simultaneously have the chance to play in the SHL in his draft year, and take advantage of what was likely to be his only chance to play pro hockey with his dad. Nonetheless, the situation stuck with him, and a player described as the most offensively skilled in the draft fell to 8th; right in the Leafs’ laps.

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But suddenly, there wasn’t much to talk about. Nylander showed up to his development camps eager to work out and improve. He played preseason games and looked good. He went back to Sweden for half a year and dominated, and when it was obvious that MODO was in deep standings and financial trouble, he came over and began a calendar year or so of dominating the American Hockey League. Every summer, he showed up a little bit stronger, a little bit more bulked up, a little more eager. The boy-band looking kid the Leafs took a chance on became a man ready to play. 

Since February, he’s put up 28 points in his first 43 NHL games. He dazzled with the puck, he drove play, he’s been an effective winger not just relative to being a 20-year-old, but in the whole scope of the league.

But now we’re back here.

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“If you miss a game because you’re hurt, that doesn’t mean you get to come back the lineup and go right back where you were. There was another game where you missed, Soshnikov went up in the lineup and had a great game. That’s where I think [Soshnikov] fits best moving forward, and Nylander, of the assets you have, you’re not touching Mitch Marner, you’re not touching Auston Matthews. He’s third of that high-end skill young player group and he does have value.” – Patrick O’Sullivan, Leafs Lunch, November 29th

That’s a hectic and strange string of quotes right there. TLN’s Ryan Hobart addressed the unsubstantiated “lack of effort” conversation in his own post last week. O’Sullivan’s idea that Soshnikov (who I value a lot, I should add), is going to make Nylander expendable, especially with a confirmation example of a single game, seems a little attached to recency bias. As for Dreger’s Vesey comment, it seems weird that a 23-year-old left winger who started the season with a hot stick and has since gone cold would supplant a player who is three years younger, plays a different position, and is outscoring him anyway. 

But who else can “generic media member X” poke at?

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Take a look at this year’s roster. You can poke at Auston Matthews’ slump but you can’t make him the fall boy; he’s the face of the franchise and he was brought in under the present guard as a first overall pick. Speaking of the present guard, you can’t throw too many stones at this year’s new additions just yet. So you’re safe, Matt Martin and Nikita Zaitsev. Goalies, just stop pucks and you’ll be fine.

You don’t want to poke at the veterans. They’re the ones who give you quotes, that you have relationships with, and many of them are the ones who remind you of a type of hockey that you prefer. Hunwick, Bozak, Polak, Komarov, Smith, Van Riemsdyk… heck, slightly younger players who have been around the Leafs room for a while like Holland (for 30 more seconds), Kadri, and Rielly are safe. You’ll probably make say Gardiner and Marincin are “too soft” when you’re bantering with your other writers, but you won’t dive too deep into it on paper because they know you at this point.

What about the local boys? Can’t rip on the local boys. You’ve seen them in the rinks since they were kids, you’re familiar with their parents, and hey, the hometown narrative is the easy one. Hyman? You’re in! Corrado, you’re in with us, maybe not in the lineup though. Brown? Safe. Marner? You’re the local boy of the big three, we won’t even mention your cold streak that you had in October.

Connor Carrick is super bright and chatty with the media if you ask him anything remotely interesting. Can’t lose him. Nikita Soshnikov is loved by Babcock, and he doesn’t understand a lot of your questions anyway, so he gets a pass. 

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So now you’re left with Nylander. He plays high octane offence that makes your jaw drop. But while the team generally doesn’t give up too many shots while he’s on the ice, his defence comes from keeping the puck away and being in a position to remove passing lanes, so it looks underwhelming. He goes cold sometimes, he’s been hurt once or sick or twice. 

But he doesn’t like talking to you much. He prefers to give you the simple, direct answer, get through his scrum, and disappear into the abyss with his teammates, or with a piece of gym equipment. Covering him with the Marlies, it became obvious that 90 seconds of post-game thoughts would be considered a “long chat”. That’s fine, as long as you don’t really care (hi) whether he’ll pad a word count with a cliche answer to a cliche question. If you do, though, that’s not fun. It’s not fun that he comes from a place you’re unfamiliar with, and that you probably need a passport scan to figure out where that place was on a given year. His story isn’t an easy one, it’s not a familiar one, and it’s wrapped up in a young kid who was the diamond forgotten in the tire fire left behind by a previous regime. 

He’s the optimal combination of brand name and consequence for blame. 

So now we sit here. We sit here questioning if he tries because he’s even trying because two other elite prospects are finding more success. We sit here questioning whether he’s a necessary part of the rebuild because other teams have done big things with less talent. We sit here watching people connect a missed day due to injury to a falling out, and a (likely extremely temporary) move to a bottom six centre move to a showcasing.

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42 games into his career. 20 games into his second season, in which he’s on pace for 60 points. Four weeks removed from Rookie of the Month honours, and here we are, watching the stories shift to him being problematic, to him being a commodity rather than an integral piece of the future.

It wasn’t hard to see this coming. It was too easy and obvious and something that fans and media have done before. I just didn’t think it would come so soon. Hopefully, those feelings remain external and don’t spill into “the room”, be it locker or war.

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  • Snizzbone

    If They have an issue with Nylander… what happens if/when Kapanen and Johnsson and Timashov and Bracco and Dzierkals and Brooks make the team. We’ll have the best laziest team there is.

  • FlareKnight

    This seems as much an overreaction as the regular media…

    Plus some parts don’t make much sense. Babcock loves Sosh so he gets a pass….wait are you saying then that Babcock doesn’t love Nylander? Which Toronto media is spreading rumors now?

    Nothing unusual here. Some overreactions from the media and overreactions on the blogs.

    • HockeyKeeperKit

      Dude, he’s thinking this through from the viewpoint of the Feschuk’s and Simmons’. He was going through the team from a “who to target?” perspective. I’m not sure why so many people miss that…

  • Terry N Donna Pierce

    what a way to start shit…….
    but saying that, since he played and received that concussion, he hasn’t been the same player for what ever the reason……

    • The Russian Rocket

      He was rookie of the month for October with 11 points in 9 games. He probably couldn’t have put up those numbers before his concussion. Just saying.

  • Tigon

    Dion is gone so we can’t blame him. Kessel also gone. Polak doesn’t play enough and the stories they write, the fans already know about him. Same with Hunwick. Andersen has rebounded so it’s time to move on from that narrative. Corrado, they tried beating that drum and the Leafs don’t care.

    I guess we have to pick one of the three super rookies. Marner, hometown boy, next. Matthews, face of the franchise and 1st overall pick, mini slump over, next.

    “Oh look at that soft European kid. They just drift around the ice and don’t try unless they have the puck. Can’t hit and wear visors like those French Canadians. Jumping out of the way of pucks, the team will never win with them.”

  • Stan Smith

    Before I get to the main point of my comment I just want to say that Nylander has played well beyond my expectations this year, and has looked to me like a more complete player than he has in the past, and more of a complete player than Matthews has shown to this point.

    Now my comment. After watching Nylander play for the Leafs last season, and the Marlies in the playoffs, I compared him to Kessel, in that he played more like a winger than a centre, was great at rushing the puck, had a wicked shot from the slot, but didn’t hit, didn’t really forecheck and didn’t seem that interested in defence. The only difference was that he was better looking.

    Now we have him also being the target of the media for being self centered, and not being overly friendly with the media. He is getting more like Kessel every day. lol

  • longdistanceleaf

    Nobody has been making Nylander a scapegoat for anything. The Leafs Lunch discussion was in the context of whether there was a possibility that the Leafs might consider offering him as part of a trade for Dougie Hamilton. Given that this very site has been speculating about the possibility of a trade for the latter, it doesn’t seem to me to be too outlandish that the Flames might regard Nylander as what they would want to come back the other way. If I were the Calgary GM, that is certainly what I would be looking for. The reality is that the Leafs are looking for a top notch defencemen to bolster their blue line and it just so happens that they have a surplus of good forwards available to trade for one. If they are after someone of the calibre of Hamilton, the conversation is going to start with someone of the calibre of William Nylander.

  • Richard

    I have watched him both with the leafs and marlies……..I will admit he seems to lose focus periodically……but damn….the talent! I think everyone should calm down and let Babs work on him….he will make him into the star we all know he can be !

  • DukesRocks

    Babcock has been known to push buttons in the hopes of getting more out a player. He did this in Detroit and he did this with Kadri and other Leafs. Whatever the message Babcock is sending to Nylander the Toronto media needs to relax. It’s not like Babcock believes Nylander is a 4th liner. Babcock also mentioned he wanted to get Sosh more minutes. When all is said and done, regardless how one perceives Babcocks madness, it will be for the better of Nylander’s career How do I know this, because he’s a proven coach and the rest of us are arm chair GMs that let our feelings get in the way of progress.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    The article is a complete disgrace. Searching Twitter for bullshit twits from a bunch of twats, just to write an article full of rumours, innuendo, misinformation, will not fly with real Leaf fans that comment on this site. We don’t even have a bottom six. So how you going to move him there? We have a top 9…. Rangers are playing a top 12…. Wake up!!!!! Watch some games. You may need to change the name of this site to CTN….Crap on LeafsNation. This is not a “shoot the messenger comment”. You seem to agree that Nylander is not and never will be good enough to play for the Leafs. No where in your article do you disagree with the fuckwitts Simmons and Feschuk

    As LukeWarmWater says:…”The Leafs are playing the most exciting hockey he has seen in years..”. LWW has already got his tickets and best clother ready, for the last game out west vs the Canucks.

    ……..(‘(…´…´…. ¯~/’…’)
    ……….”…………. _.·´

      • HockeyKeeperKit

        Ya man. Sure, Jeff’s agreeing with the narrative. The media is making him out to be the next Kessel. No sound bites. Rumours of attitude issues. Inconsistent European style of play. Nylander is all those things. That’s not a bad thing though and it was proven not to be a bad thing with Kessel (he did win a Cup afterall). This is exactly how the Kessel media venom started. Whispers becoming reality. Read the last paragraph. Chill.

  • donutwish

    This article is no better than the drivel shoveled out by the likes of Feschuk and Simmons. All it accomplishes is giving more attention to the hacks that don’t deserve it. This is just perpeptuating the fake drama. Stop giving light to those weeds and let them shrivel up and die.

    • espo

      it is kinda reporting on reporting…. which seems a touch superfluous in and of itself i suppose… it’s a decent story.

      I have a highly inappropriate analogy, but having typed it, have decided to leave it be. That said, this article serves as a warning, puts us on notice to not allow the current narrative to just slide and actually think critically about what’s being written about the team. Not always a fan of Jeff’s viewpoints but I think you guys are overreacting here

    • G2

      Very true. No one serious gives a rat’s ass what Feschuk, Simmons, Don Cherry or the disgusting, fat and lazy ODog thinks. Repeating, regurgitating and searching through the goo of their “thoughts” serves no purpose I can think of. Unless the point is only to stir up more shit. I agree with the opinion above and that of LukeDaDrifter further above that. This is getting stupid.

  • DukesRocks

    Just watched pregame interview with Babs. The reporter references a quote, “Nylander stating he was in a slump”. Babs stated “he didn’t feel Nylander was in a slump”. He’s on the 4th line due to circumstance, nothing more. Babs stated it’s not a punishment.

    I feel this is a benefit for Nylander to log minutes at centre. I just wish it wasn’t Smith on his wing. But we’ll see how it plays out tonight.

  • AussieBoy

    Dumping on Nylander is insanity….

    The kid is only going to get better.
    Leave him be.
    If not,Nylander will be the one everyone in retrospect says”Told you we shouldn’t have traded him”

    How predictable.

  • Ron K

    The problem with the media in Toronto stems from the fact they haven’t seen a good Leafs team in their lifetime and wouldn’t know a budding star if it jumped up and smacked them in the mouth. They’re too used to seeing 3rd rate draft picks and cast-offs from other clubs playing first line minutes. They are the same people who thought Dave Clarkson was a great signing and Dion Pheneuf was a Norris candidate. I think it’s time to take out the trash that disguise themselves as media gurus in the Toronto market and replace them with people that actually know what they’re talking about.
    To suggest that Nylander is a self-centered wannabe is absurd. He’s a very highly skilled rookie trying to find his way in the most elite league in the world. Nylander for Hamilton…….Really? What a joke.

  • john gilmour

    players determine their position on the team, by being a player a coach can go to on any situation, you may have certain skills, and history, but if this coach can’t trust his player in any given situation, and he can trust another, not as gifted player, in any given situation, he has made himself, expendable not the coach, his agent, his father, or lamorello, the player decides his worth to the team, and to the coaches, needs, that he counts on for success, if you can’t do that, you may be a fancy skater, and brilliant with the puck, but if you cannot be consistent, someone will take your place!