Toronto Maple Leafs: How William Nylander May Have Salvaged His Season

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 21: Toronto Maple Leafs Right Wing William Nylander (29) reacts during Game 6 of the First Round Stanley Cup Playoffs series between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 21, 2019, at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, ON. (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 21: Toronto Maple Leafs Right Wing William Nylander (29) reacts during Game 6 of the First Round Stanley Cup Playoffs series between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 21, 2019, at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, ON. (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /
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One slight alteration in the timeline might have saved William Nylander from his rough campaign with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Stop me if you have heard this before: William Nylander had a disappointing 2018-19 season with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Due to a combination of his prolonged contract dispute, a slow start to his season, and an extended slump that ultimately affected his rotation in the lineup, Nylander had very little gone his way this past campaign. It didn’t help that he posted uncharacteristic numbers offensively during the regular season and the playoffs.

While the underlying stats suggest that Nylander was fine and just had back luck all year, there’s no doubt that he had a lot more to give than what the results indicate. Judging by the feeling of regret that both he and Kyle Dubas felt after the season ended, it’s clear this thinking is mutual.

There was, however, a potential solution that the team did not use that may have made a difference in how Nylander’s season played out. He could have greatly benefited from a brief conditioning stint with the Marlies prior to making his season debut.

A logical approach to the situation

After signing his 6-year extension with the Leafs on December 1st, he expressed that he was in great shape and knew he would need some time to adjust. Prior to his deal, he was seen numerous times practicing with teams in Europe in an effort to stay active and continue to do some form of hockey.

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From a practical standpoint, Nylander practicing with teams and staying in shape as best as he could be was simply not enough to help prepare for the grind of a long hockey season.

Given that he didn’t play in the 2018 IIHF World Championship and his last game was Game 7 of the 2018 playoffs, Nylander needed to get in some game action while back home (obviously on a PTO type deal).

As a result, it’s understandable why he and the Leafs wanted to ensure he returned to the lineup as soon as possible given the circumstances. It also makes sense why, at that time, Mike Babcock brushed off the idea of having Nylander do a conditioning stint before his season debut.

Looking back, however, it appears that Nylander was rushed into the roster too quickly and wasn’t set up to have success as Dubas himself admitted.

Think about it, how can you logically expect a player who had not played any hockey games for many months to return to the lineup in the middle of the season and not only survive but thrive.

Given that the vast majority of NHL players had been playing for over two months and were fully engaged, Nylander was put in a tough spot right off the bat and his chances of succeeding were low.

By no means do I suggest he should be excused over how his season unfolded. Based on how everything played out prior to his signing, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he wasn’t able to be fully engaged with his team until later in the campaign.

The conditioning stint

So taking everything into account, perhaps a short conditioning stint with the Marlies may have been greatly beneficial for Nylander. It would have made a lot of sense too, given how the Leafs and Marlies schedules looked around the time he returned to Toronto.

We know that Nylander made his season debut on December 6th against the Detroit Red Wings, nearly a week after signing his deal. It’s commendable that he wanted to return as soon as he did, but a delay to his first game may have helped.

That’s because, around this time, the Marlies were in the middle of a six-game homestand. One of these games occurred the day before his actual season debut, and two of them taking place around the time the Leafs started a five-game road trip.

In this scenario, I would have Nylander play three games with the Marlies from December 5th to 9th and have him return to the Leafs immediately afterwards. He would then practice with the team for a few days before making his return on December 13th against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

This game took place a week after Nylander made his actual debut, which means he would have only missed three games as a result. It also means that the Josh Leivo trade happens later than in reality.

This conditioning stint could have been used as a way for Nylander to get his “pre-season games” in and gain some confidence. Given that Sheldon Keefe’s system is similar to what Babcock uses, it could have also helped Nylander prepare for the season and make his transition back much smoother.

Perhaps it could have prevented him from an extended absence away from Auston Matthews and his time spent on the third line. It may have even altered how the Leafs campaign played out during the regular season and in the playoffs against the Boston Bruins.

This doesn’t mean that Nylander’s season output instantly changes from what really occurred due to the hypothetical conditioning stint. It simply improves his chances of successfully returning to the lineup and contributing right away.

Conclusion

Regardless of what other alternatives the Leafs may have pursued, there’s no doubt they could have handled Nylander’s return to the roster a lot better.

The obvious solution would have been to have his deal done before the start of training camp, but because of how things ended up occurring, he had to sign at the last minute and subsequently rush back in. It resulted in a lost season for the 23-year-old and a lesson learned for Dubas.

Nylander’s success at the 2019 IIHF World Championship is encouraging and the underlying numbers suggest he will rebound next season. At the same time, he knows he had a lot more to give with the Leafs in 2018-19. Perhaps a short conditioning stint with the Marlies may have alleviated this and potentially alter his season outlook positively.

Next. 4 Reasons Why There Is 0 Percent Chance of a Nylander Trade. dark

At the end of the day, Nylander’s season can’t be altered as it is now in the past. All he and the Leafs can do is learn from it and grow to be better in the future. Having said that, there’s no doubt that there will always be the lingering thought of how he and the team could have handled it all better.

The idea of Nylander briefly playing with the Marlies before making is anticipated return to the roster is, after all, just a theory. It’s one that Dubas may explore if a similar situation comes up again in the future.

Hopefully, he and the Leafs won’t have to deal with such a scenario ever again.