William Nylander was a frequent first line player and a staple of the Toronto Maple Leafs offense during the 2017-18 National Hockey League (NHL) season. He put up a commendable 61 points over the eighty-two regular season games and helped carry the team to a third place finish in the Atlantic Division. But currently without a contract, he has yet to play an NHL game in the 2018-19 season – and he never will if he doesn’t sign by the fast approaching 1 December deadline.
Despite his absence, the Leafs have still been performing quite well thus far in the 2018-19 season. With an 11-6 record they sit at second in the Atlantic division and are tied for the fourth most goals scored in the league, as of 10 November 2018. However, as good as their standing is, it doesn’t reflect their mediocre 3-3 record in the past six games which were played without their star player, Auston Matthews. Matthews suffered yet another shoulder injury against the Winnipeg Jets on 27 October and was predicted to be out for at least four weeks. As a top scorer and cornerstone of the team, the Leafs have noticeably suffered without him.
Nylander is the player that the Leafs need to solidify the lineup and alleviate some of the dependence on Matthews. Nylander was among only 13% of NHL players who scored over 20 goals last season . He is undoubtedly a vital offensive asset, one that the Leafs could very well use as the team makes a run for the Stanley Cup this season.
Unfortunately, it’s not a simple situation for the Leafs and their general manager, Kyle Dubas. They have been insistent about signing Nylander for $6 to $7 million annually, a remarkable amount for a 22-year-old. He has been equally adamant about receiving at least $8 million annually, as part of a long-term deal. While this is a sum that Toronto can certainly afford, the problem goes beyond a couple million dollars a year.
As an unsigned Restricted Free Agent, Nylander needs to reach an agreement before the deadline if he wishes to play in the NHL this year. The Leafs, on the other hand, are already looking towards next season. With the Leafs making their biggest offseason acquisition of New York Islanders captain and star John Tavares, the team’s budget has been constrained for the upcoming seasons. They will also need to negotiate new contracts for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in the offseason, both young priority players for the team who will demand hefty salaries. As a result, they are trying to get Nylander to agree to as little money as possible to free up the cap space for those signings. Not only will granting Nylander a higher salary take up valuable cap space, it could be used by Marner and Matthews to strengthen the case for a sizeable bump in their own pay
For Nylander, the stakes are just as serious. While the extra million dollars he is asking for is just a drop in the bucket to the Leafs, over a long-term contract this is life-changing money for him and his family. It would also grant him a great deal of certainty through the looming expiry of the collective bargaining agreement in 2020, and the potential of a work stoppage.
Nylander does have a strong case for the high salary he’s demanding. Not only was he one of the top scorers in the league, his Primary Shots Contributions per 60 minutes is in the 96th percentile of the league, which is to say that even when not scoring goals, he’s creating scoring chances for teammates at top-in-the-league rates . His ability to elevate the performance of those around him can be easily overlooked when comparing him to potential replacements, but will prove vital to the Leafs’ offence as they look to go deep into the playoffs this season.
With no party backing down, it’s easy to blame one side, whether it’s the ultra-rich team ownership trying to shortchange Nylander because of his RFA status, or Nylander being greedy asking for a couple extra million more than he deserves on his multi-million dollar contract. However, it’s clear that both parties are making reasonable demands from their points of view. Nevertheless, with the deadline looming an agreement must be reached for Nylander to be able to play this season. Skipping out on the 2018-19 NHL season would be a huge loss for both sides: Nylander’s value and reputation would plummet, and the Leafs, in addition to missing the valuable playmaker, would be setting an undesirable precedent.
In the end, Kyle Dubas and William Nylander both know what they’re doing, and as long as cooler heads prevail and they keep their interests in mind above posturing and blame, a compromise will be reached, and there need not be any losers and winners; only a stronger Maple Leafs team more prepared than they’ve been in decades to hunt for a Stanley Cup.