Nylander's edge in offensive zone key to dominant start to season

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Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe doesn’t flinch when William Nylander gathers the puck at the opposition’s blue-line and surveys the offensive zone landscape. 

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More often than not, Nylander is on the verge of creating a scoring chance, if not a goal, for the Leafs. 

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In this eye-opening season on the part of Nylander, which includes at least one point in all 17 of the Toronto’s games, few teams have been able to put a lid on the 27-year-old right-winger once he winds up high in the offensive zone. 

“It’s a dangerous area to be in,” Keefe said after the Leafs returned to practice on Wednesday at the Ford Performance Centre following their two-win trek in Sweden. “Not many players can play there and thrive because there’s risks that come with it. You turn the puck over in that space and it’s a pretty dangerous opportunity going the other way. 

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“You have to find the timing, find the pocket and then you have to be able to usually evade a check. And that’s what he does really well. Mitch (Marner) is also good at that, when guys come to close on him, he’s comfortable challenging one on one and protecting the puck and getting it into safety, if not into an area where we can generate a scoring chance.”

With 27 points in 17 games, Nylander was tied for sixth in NHL scoring before the league’s 14-game schedule got underway on Wednesday. If Nylander records a point in the Leafs’ next game on Friday afternoon in Chicago against the Blackhawks, he will become the first active player to start a season with a point in 18 consecutive games. That would also tie Darryl Sittler (1977-78) and Ed Olczyk (1989-90) for the second-longest point streak in club history. 

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Marner holds the record in that regard, having set it last season when he went on a 23-game run from Oct. 27 to Dec. 13.

Nylander’s ability to dance past foes when he’s controlling the puck, often in little space as he bursts toward the net, has become a habit. Nylander would do it in the past, but not with the regularity that has been happening now.

Veteran defenceman Mark Giordano sees a difference.

“His one-on-one play is right up there with anyone in the league, if not No. 1,” Giordano said. “What I’ve been noticing this year are his spins and turning away from guys and it doesn’t look like he’s skating really, he’s gliding, but he’s getting by guys. 

“It has been pretty impressive. He’s in a groove and we just want to keep him going, keep supporting him.”

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Captain John Tavares noted Nylander’s ability to tilt the scales in key moments; in the Leafs’ three overtime victories in 2023-24, Nylander had two assists in the extra period before he scored the winner against the Minnesota Wild in Stockholm on Sunday.

Despite his game-breaking bursts of speed, Nylander shrugged at a question about his edge work.  

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“Just doing it for years,” Nylander said. “You try coming down, looking at the net and you’ve got all the options available, so it gives you some more space and more time to think about what you want to do.”

Nylander has been dominant against Chicago, recording 18 points (nine goals and nine assists) in 12 career games. Seven of his goals have come at even strength; he has scored more even-strength goals against only Montreal (nine).

Nylander shone on his home soil in Sweden, driving the Leafs to a couple of wins while keeping the off-ice distractions, of which there potentially were many, on the outside. There’s no reason to believe that Nylander’s commanding ways won’t continue.

“He just feels his game at a different level,” Tavares said. “I think we all see it. It was great to see him thrive in the spotlight, which he has done here for a long time.”

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