TAMPA — There was little positive to draw from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ disappointing first-round playoff upset against the Montreal Canadiens last season, but William Nylander certainly wasn’t a reason for the outcome.
The forward led all players on his team with five goals and eight points in the seven-game series and found some chemistry with Alex Kerfoot, who finished second on the team in points with six (one goal, five assists).
Given the success the two had together last postseason, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has reunited them again with the playoffs just around the corner. The change came in the wake of some lineup adjustments after the team’s top star, Auston Matthews, missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury.
Last playoffs, the duo skated with Alex Galchenyuk. And if the last two games are any indication, it looks like Pierre Engvall is going to be targetted for that role in May.
“I want to see if something can spark there,” Keefe said on Wednesday morning. “Then you have three lines that can really score and be really confident.”
Of course, any success of that third line is going to depend on Nylander. The flashy forward is known for his offensive prowess and when he’s on his game he can perform with the best of them.
While there have been issues with his consistency throughout his career, there appears to be a sense of self-awareness from the Swede.
At the end of March, Nylander was split away from John Tavares, his regular linemate for a majority of the season and moved down to the third line. In addition to finding some balanced scoring, the line had given up more goals than they had scored, prompting Nylander to make a joke about it long after the breakup.
“I was joking with some of the guys, I say, ‘If you guys want a minus come play with me,’” Nylander said one day after scoring a pair of even-strength goals in a 7-3 win against the Washington Capitals on Apr. 14.
Not happy with his level of play leading up that moment, Nylander said he took it upon himself to check out some footage of a couple of games when he performed well earlier in the season and a couple of games after while he was struggling.
“I was kind of pissed and I wanted to get back to the way I could play,” Nylander said of the move.
In many ways, Nylander represents both the optimists and pessimists of the Leafs fanbase. The Leafs have touted a group that is more mature following the disaster of last season.
“We feel like we blew a great opportunity last year and that’s definitely been on the back of our mind all year,” Jason Spezza said on Wednesday.
Whatever side of the fence you land on the debate of will they or won’t they get over the hump this season, there’s no denying the regular-season achievement of this group from an overall and individual level and as the coach sees it. Matthews, Mitch Marner, Kerfoot, Engvall have all hit new careers in different aspects of the scoresheet.
“There’s no doubt that our individual players have taken a step this season, but we’ve played really good hockey as a team and the guys have bought into it,” Keefe said.
The growth in Nylander this season is evident. He spoke up and shared with the media what was said in the locker room when the team was 2-4-1 to start the season and down 2-0 to the then winless Chicago Blackhawks
“Time to wake up, stop feeling four ourselves,” Nylander shared on Oct. 27.
He’s recognized within himself that he needs an exterior level of accountability when things aren’t going well. Keefe shared back in November that there are times where the forward has asked to be pushed.
The Maple Leafs need scoring from their stars like Matthews and Marner. They need No. 1 goaltending from the likes of Jack Campbell. But a maturing and self-aware William Nylander might be the cherry on top that helps change the perception of both himself and the team.
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