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.
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.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) July 8, 2015
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.
Simmons: “on the nights where William Nylander has tried hard, I’ve been impressed”
Feschuk: “well that’s not often”
— Platinum Seat Ghosts (@3rdPeriodSuits) November 22, 2016
“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
— Leafs Lunch TSN 1050 (@Leafs_Lunch) November 29, 2016
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?
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.
William Nylander swoops in, grabs the puck, rips it, and ends his goal drought. 6-2 Leafs pic.twitter.com/JRIuqXdSVF
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 16, 2016
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.
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.