William Nylander and the art vs. science dialectic in a contract year

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
6 months ago
William Nylander is in the middle of a tour-de-force season, submitting galvanizing individual performances, displaying the sublime all-around skill that draws people to hockey in the first place. It’s pretty easy to forget that the former eighth overall pick’s work is an art form rather than a science, especially given the context of a contract year and in the hockey centre of the universe, Nylander’s 2023-24 campaign has constantly invoked the art vs. science dialectic. 
To work in sports media — and specifically hockey media, given the finite, unforgiving permutations of the salary cap — you have to display a working understanding that teams aren’t operating with infinite resources. That’s all well and good. There’s a more problematic element at play here: anytime Nylander adds to his point streak or goes on an individual end-to-end rush or picks the top corner, every corner of the hockey internet believes the most interesting way to evaluate Nylander is through the prism of his ascending contract value. 
This worldview surmises that Nylander is only as good as the Maple Leafs (or another suitor this summer) deem him to be, rather than valuing his labour and the fruits of it for their inherent goodness, which has simply translated into 17-game and 13-game point streaks, a down-ballot Hart Trophy campaign and a legion of children throughout the Greater Toronto Area emulating No. 88 on driveways everywhere. 
As a member of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, I understand how the salary cap works and covering the Maple Leafs, you have to be acutely aware of how past negotiations have fenced the team into a relatively inflexible position regarding transactions and new additions. Understanding the Maple Leafs have finite resources is one thing, praying that Nylander isn’t paid commensurate to his market value is just confounding, anti-labour behavior from fans, As a media member, we’re technically supposed to be neutral but the dirty, little secret of covering a team: you want the players you cover to do well, it makes locker room interactions a lot easier, the people you cover are more likely to give you more interesting answers if they’re in a better mood, so why would you root against Nylander getting paid what he deserves? It’s a puzzling predicament, particularly if you’re invested in Nylander’s success. 
To be abundantly clear, there’s nothing wrong with discussing expiring contracts, it’s a natural part of the North American sporting ecosystem. But to be singularly fixated with the terms of Nylander’s imminent, long-term pact rather than the dazzling artform he has mastered misses the point entirely. Why do we cover hockey in the first place, did we get into this wildly competitive business just to fiddle around with a few decimal points on CapFriendly? Is the larger hockey collective trying to audition for Brandon Pridham’s job? Are you, the reader, thinking ‘8X11, that’s way too much!’ every time No. 88 races up the ice? 
Nylander, to his credit, has always stated he wants to play for the Maple Leafs. After several days of repetitive questions about his upcoming deal, Nylander said he’s deferring negotiations to his agent, Lewis Gross, and that he wouldn’t speak about it until a new deal was completed. He’s given no indication that he’s leaving. These are the facts and there’s a reasonable chance insiders are sitting on aspects of the negotiation that aren’t publicly available, but from Nylander’s perspective, he’s given no indication he’s operating in bad faith. 
At the time of this filing, Nylander ranks 5th in the NHL with 19 goals and 51 points in 36 games, he’s been one of the NHL’s premier shot creators and he’s accelerated Tyler Bertuzzi’s transformation after the first week of November. When he’s scoring impossible goals like this one against the Columbus Blue Jackets, is your first instinct to speculate about a few decimal points? 
Is it a natural inclination to think about a couple hundred thousand dollars or does the artistry of Nylander’s end-to-end rush to defeat the Minnesota Wild in his Stockholm homecoming appeal to you first?
Are you worried about what the next eight years portend when Nylander can cut through one of the NHL’s best defenses and dish it off to Auston Matthews — whose contract negotiations were a point of contention, then became an immediate afterthought once the ink dried, art will always be paramount when evaluating sports and other forms of entertainment over science. 
Nylander’s 2023-24 campaign easily exemplifies why we gravitate to hockey in the first place. To be fixated on his monetary value or approximate market value rather than appreciating the beauty of his game misses the point entirely. Let’s hope both parties see it this way during a long, prosperous marriage. 

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