Welcome to The Leafs Nation’s year-(so far)-in-review series in which we talk about something we learned about each player on the team this year. Today, we have William Nylander’s rebound performance.
The 2018-19 season was a disaster for William Nylander.
The summer went by and the first member of the Leafs’ Big Three to reach restricted free agency was without a contract. Training camp started and Nylander wasn’t there. A few weeks later, the season got rolling and Nylander wasn’t in the lineup. This went on and on and on and on with Nylander’s image taking a hit with each passing day. While the Leafs played, he was waiting around in Europe.
Right or wrong, Nylander was painted as selfish and greedy, asking for too much money while the rest of his teammates went to work. That’s inevitably how fans are going to perceive a player holding out for more money when they’re already making millions.
At times it looked like Nylander would sit out the entire season. Hell, it even looked like he might never play for the Leafs again. But, at the last possible moment, Kyle Dubas and Nylander came to a deal worth $6.9 million annually for six seasons.
Nylander returned to the Leafs’ lineup with a lot to prove. He had just sat out for the first two months of the season because he felt he was worth a lot of money and now that he had been paid he had to prove he was worth it.
But, as you could imagine, Nylander was a step behind the NHL game. You can skate around and lift weights all day to stay in shape, but you can’t keep yourself at game speed. Nylander looked like a big, hulking tank, completely different from the quick, dynamic, and nimble player we had come to know.
All told, he posted just seven goals and 27 points in 54 games, far and away his worst offensive showing since breaking into the league. This obviously wasn’t the ideal way to show everybody that you were worth your contract.
After the season, Nylander stated that he regretted missing the first two months of the season. He wished it had gone differently and that he could have been with the team right off the hop. He also said that he had much higher expectations for himself than what he showed in that 54-game span.
“I just wish I would have been here from the beginning. I think that was probably one of the things that I regret about it… This year didn’t show nearly to where I can be at as a player. I have higher expectations for myself moving forward.”
He made good on his word. Nylander didn’t just bounce back this season, he reached a new level. While he had often thrived with his skill and creativity on the perimeter, Nylander in 2019-20 showed an increased willingness to get into the dirty areas of the offensive zone.
Travis Yost put out an excellent analysis of Nylander’s development on Monday, noting how he’s started to take more and more shots from the inner-slot, also known as crashing the net. As a result, he crushed his career-high in goals, potting 31 in 68 games. If not for the pause, Nylander could realistically have made a bit for the 40-goal plateau.
It’s difficult to complain about a $6.9 million cap hit when you have a player gunning for the 40-goal mark. Nylander’s rebound season has killed the narrative that he’s overpaid. Sooner rather than later, his contract is probably going to look like a discount.