Damien Cox: William Nylander not up to speed yet, but it’s not a crisis situation for the Leafs

Damien Cox: William Nylander not up to speed yet, but it’s not a crisis situation for the Leafs
First, obviously William Nylander is not currently playing to the level of a $10-million player — his cap hit this season — or even one-tenth of that level.

There’s no denying William Nylander has struggled to get up to speed after signing that big, new contract. But it’s important to remember the Leafs need Nylander at peak performance in April, and patience will be key.  (Kevin Sousa / NHLI via GETTY IMAGES)

So let’s not candy coat where we are right now.

Second, Nylander painted a target on his own back by declining to sign until he received an offer that many thought he deserved based on his play as an NHL regular in his young career, and many thought he didn’t deserve.

Third, this is not a crisis, or even remotely close to a crisis.

Remember, 47.5 per cent of the Maple Leafs’ regular season — 39 games — has yet to be played. There’s lots of time for Nylander to work this out on an uber-talented team cruising along with the second-highest points percentage in the NHL and a high-octane offence that is fourth best in the league despite having received fewer power-play opportunities than any other club. Using its third-string goalie over the past seven days, Toronto has won two of its past three.

How the final minutes of the Leafs’ William Nylander showdown played out

Reasonable hockey people, and most Leaf fans, understand this is the best Leaf team in at least 20 years, a team in a position to allow players to sort out their individual games.

Still, it’s understandable for Leaf fans to be a trifle disappointed in Nylander so far. Leaf head coach Mike Babcock clearly has a ways to go until he has full confidence in the youngster. With the Leafs leading New Jersey 3-2 on Thursday night and two minutes left to play in the third period, Nylander was replaced on his line with Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau by Connor Brown.

So that’s where we are with this player right now: One goal in 15 games and still only usable in limited situations.

But let’s dive a little deeper. What exactly did we see from Nylander on Thursday?

Against the Devils, on his first shift, he was skating backwards through the neutral zone as the last Leaf back when the puck was flipped to the middle of the ice. Nylander either didn’t sense the danger with Brett Seney steaming towards him, or he wasn’t in an urgent mood. Either way, he tried to swat at the puck in the air, missed it, and Seney had a breakaway. Seney didn’t score, but it was a soft, risky play by a Leaf who looked like he was waiting to get warmed up before he dug in.

Call it jump, call it urgency — right now, Nylander doesn’t have it, particularly early in games.

The game then ended, as previously mentioned, with Nylander replaced by Brown for defensive purposes. Clearly, the Leafs are judiciously protecting Nylander (only 44 per cent defensive zone starts) while he gets up to speed.

Still, it’s worth remembering that last season, Babcock felt good enough about Nylander that he actually had more defensive zone starts than offensive zone starts. So he’s likely to regain his coach’s confidence.

So what did we take away from Nylander’s 15th game? He’s still trailing the league after giving the other 700-plus players a 25-game head start, a fact made more obvious because some of his teammates are playing with a higher level of pace than they did when he played with them last season.

Marner, in particular, catches your eye now at both ends of the ice with his high compete level. When Nylander starts playing with the same fire as Marner, that’s when he’s going to start being the player the Leafs are paying for.

In terms of a progress report, Nylander is possessing the puck, something that’s valued on the Leafs, and he’s winning faceoffs and getting some chances.

So it’s coming. S-L-O-W-L-Y. Just remember, the objective for the Leafs is to have Nylander back playing at a top level by early April, not by next week.
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