William Nylander is one of the most polarizing young personalities on the Toronto Maple Leafs roster. Recognized as having a special talent, he was almost universally adored by Maple Leafs fans prior to last season’s holdout. After he signed what seemed like a demanding last-second contract, he returned to the team and then floundered on the ice. Now, some fans remain undecided.

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His play during last summer’s World Championships was personally redemptive, and his 18 points (and 13 assists) in eight games playing for Team Sweden led the entire tournament. In fact, his resurgence was one of the top storylines of the tournament.

William Nylander led all scorers at the 2019 World Championships

As a result of that success, he vowed this season would be a new beginning and even “signed” that mental deal by switching his Maple Leafs jersey number from 29 to 88 — the number he wore when he played in the Swedish Hockey League and during the 2019 World Championships. In addition, in a fan-friendly gesture, Nylander even covered the $65 for heat-pressing or $100 for stitching that fans who had his old jersey would have to pay if they wanted his new number.

Nylander’s Play This Season

Up to and through the Maple Leafs games on Dec. 20 against the New York Rangers, Nylander had had a good-enough season. It was far better than last season’s funk and close to his two 61-point seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18. In fact, in the game against the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 17, he scored an assist and then followed that game with an offensive breakout against the Rangers where he exploded with two goals, including the game-winner, and an assist in the 6-3 win.

Given that Nylander had scored only three points in the last nine games prior to the Rangers’ game, one would think such a good night would motivate the young Swedish winger. But it didn’t. In the game against the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 21, head coach Sheldon Keefe benched Nylander by restricting him to three shifts in the second period and no shifts in the final 13 minutes of the game. (Keefe did the same to Kasperi Kapanen.)

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Keefe benched Nylander because he wasn’t engaged enough to backcheck. Nylander’s a huge talent and was on pace to equal his 61-point pace from his best seasons, but he remains a work-in-progress. In the Red Wings game, Keefe did some “work.”

Obviously, I’m not privy to any conversations between coaches and players, but I don’t imagine Keefe pulled a Mike Babcock by mind-gaming Nylander or abusing him verbally. I’m guessing he kept the message simple: If you won’t play like you’re interested, we’ll play someone who is interested.

Sheldon Keefe; John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks to captain John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

So Nylander, because he was uninvolved, sat for much of the game. After such a dominant performance the night before, did the young star learn anything?

Nylander’s Play Since the Red Wings Game

It seems Nylander heard the message loud and clear, and it didn’t take him long to respond. He scored a goal in the very next game in the 8-6 come-from-behind win against the Carolina Hurricanes – of course, with that score, so did lots of other players.

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

More interesting than the victory is that the team found itself buried and dug itself out. Given the horrible 6-1 game against the Philadelphia Flyers where they simply wilted, that was a good sign. And, Nylander was one of the diggers.

Next, in the Dec. 27 comeback 5-4 victory over the New Jersey Devils, Nylander scored three points including the game-winner. Halfway through the third period, Nylander assisted on John Tavares’ game-tying, power-play goal. And, truth be told, it’s probably more accurate to say Nylander was credited with the game-winner when he stripped the puck from young Jack Hughes, cut to the front of the net, lost the puck, but then gleefully watched Damon Severson accidentally “clear” the puck behind his own goalie for the Maple Leafs winner.

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Still, it was a solid performance by Nylander, who now has 15 goals, 16 assists, and 31 points in 39 games and is suddenly on pace to best his own career high of 61 points.

What might be more telling is that Nylander was both on the ice during the third-period power play with the team down a goal and also on the ice in overtime when mistakes are far more perilous and can lead, as the Devils’ Calder candidate Hughes discovered, to an immediate loss. There, under Keefe’s direction, the same Nylander who had been benched only two games earlier was in the midst of the fray. Keefe trusted him, and Nylander responded.

Toronto Maple Leafs' William Nylander
Toronto Maple Leafs’ William Nylander (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File)

I have to believe that Keefe’s message to Nylander had not fallen on deaf ears. In fact, he received the message loud and clear.

Two Lessons for Maple Leafs Fans

Maple Leafs fans are still learning about Keefe as a head coach and, by both benching and trusting Nylander, we learned that Keefe is willing to correct his players — even if he likes them. Second, we also learned that Nylander might be a player who needs to learn a lesson every once in a while. He might not have the inner drive that simply exudes from players like Zach Hyman and, as a result, he might need a coach to ramp up his engagement level sometimes.

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So, here we are. If Nylander won’t stay engaged, Keefe has shown him there are other players on the roster who do have enough fire in their bellies to take his spot.

The Maple Leafs Are Moving Forward

It’s hard to argue that life with Keefe as the team’s head coach isn’t good. Still, for the team to make the playoffs and make a real run at the Stanley Cup (starting by beating the Boston Bruins in Round 1, if it comes to that), it must be a team filled with hard-working, skilled players who simply won’t take nights off.

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Nylander learned that his head coach will make tough-love decisions for the good of the team and will hold players accountable for their play. Maple Leafs fans also learned that, when players must be held accountable, they will be.