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Leafs’ William Nylander getting a jump on the new season

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 2019-10-09 Mark Zwolinski - Sports Reporter
a close up of a person in a blue uniform: William Nylander has four points in the Leafs’ first four games, and his line has scored seven of the team’s 16 goals. © Chris Young William Nylander has four points in the Leafs’ first four games, and his line has scored seven of the team’s 16 goals.

The tag line on William Nylander’s first four games could go something like: “So far, so good.”

The Maple Leafs winger has been everything he’d been advertised as in the past — an elite skater, shooter and puckhandler. With two goals and four points over the first four games of the season, he’s building the foundation for a bounceback year after a 2018-19 season that never got going following a lengthy contract impasse.

Leafs coach Mike Babcock has been glowing in his reviews.

“That was his best (game) by far,” Babcock said after a well-rounded effort produced one of Toronto’s goals in a 3-2 loss to St. Louis on Monday night. “He had the puck, he got the puck, he got it back, he made things happen. I thought it was his most competitive game this year. It’d be one we’d like to see, obviously, on a regular basis. He has all the ability. He had turnbacks, he won pucks, he was on the puck, he was strong …”

One of Babcock’s challenges last year was getting to Nylander to perform at a consistently strong level. He would show the forward video of games where he did things well. Nylander hasn’t needed the prompting yet this season.

“He’s on the puck, making plays ... getting the puck so we can have it,” Babcock said Tuesday. “We never saw that last year, for some reason, so it’s great to see him feel good about himself. And it’s good for the team.”

Though its been a small sample size, Nylander’s line with Auston Matthews at centre and Andreas Johnsson on the other wing has been the Leafs’ most dangerous forward unit.

The line controlled the puck more than 71 per cent of the time Monday against one of the best blue-lines in the NHL. The trio took nine shots on goal, with another 10 attempts, which helped the Leafs to some impressive shot stats, including a 34-30 edge in shots, and 34 total scoring chances at even strength.

Nylander and his line have shown an early chemistry, with Nylander and Matthews having highlight moments with their pure skills and Johnsson providing a physical presence in front of the net.

The line’s early jump — the three have combined for seven of the team’s 16 goals — tempers the fact John Tavares’s line with Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen has just one goal at even strength.

“We’re hungry, we’re skating, that’s how we want to play,” Nylander said.

Nylander appears to be committed to the forechecking game, which was a cloudy point in his performance last season. While he’s not a prototypical banger, he uses his speed to get to pucks. And he’s using one of his unsung assets — the ability to skate with his stick well out in front of his body — to keep those pucks away from defenders and create offence.

Babcock has rewarded Nylander with 16:23 of ice time per game, up almost a minute from last season. That’s likely to continue Thursday when the Leafs host the Tampa Bay Lightning, the regular-season champions from a year ago.

Mark Zwolinski is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @markzwol

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