William Nylander is standing shirtless, a leg up on his dressing-room stall, with his butt sticking out toward a group of reporters waiting nearby.
He’s not being rude, of course. He never is in his interactions with media. That’s an unfortunate misconception about one of the NHL‘s continually miscast stars.
Nylander is just content to drive in a lane all his own, free of any distractions caused by oncoming traffic. As the 26-year-old right winger finishes a conversation with one reporter, he turns to see that group has grown to nearly a dozen. He begins to make his way toward the dressing room.
“Oh, do you wanna talk to me?” he asks, hitting every note with pitch-perfect aplomb.
Of course they do: Nylander is having the best season of his eight-year NHL career, on pace for 43 goals and 91 points. He constantly looks capable of turning defenders inside out with evolving creativity. There’s more strength in his game too, as evidenced by how well he holds off defenders with the puck to showcase that creativity.
These traits have elevated Nylander to be considered among the elite right wingers in the game. And they are the kind of traits that make Nylander’s $6.9-million cap hit excellent value for the Maple Leafs.
But it’s not just the value he provides on the ice that make him important to the Leafs. It is the quintessentially Nylander manner in which he operates that will help him navigate another pressure-filled season.
To better understand how he operates, The Athletic spoke to Nylander and multiple teammates about one of the most interesting Maple Leafs.
William Nylander is never late, but is also never early
When teammates are asked about Nylander, they usually share a knowing grin, unsure of how much to reveal.
“I’ve got a few pretty good ones,” said Pierre Engvall when asked about his favorite Nylander story, “but nothing I can tell you, to be honest.”
Teammates might pause, but many still know that when it comes to Nylander, time is of the essence.
“My favorite thing on a day-to-day basis about Will is how late he comes into the rink and doesn’t get stressed,” said Alex Kerfoot. “He gets dressed in two minutes. He’s got his AirPods in and it never looks like he’s rushing. Everyone else is out in the hall, and will just comes in, grabs some gum, grabs some tape and the next thing you know, he’s ready to go.”
There were times early in Kerfoot’s Leafs tenure when he grew anxious about his teammate. But now he knows Nylander “has got it down to a science.”
“He’s the last one here, but he’s never late. He’s always right on time,” said Calle Jarnkrok of Nylander’s arrival to meetings, for example. “I don’t know if he sits in his car and waits for the last minute.”
Is he indeed waiting in his car just to stay on brand? Not quite.
There have been times this season when Nylander has run into traffic en route to a game while navigating downtown Toronto’s clogged arteries. Nylander will realize he might be late if he keeps trying to grind through traffic coming south on Bay Street, “where turning into the rink is awful,” he attests.
In a rare moment of hurriedness, he’ll call veteran Leafs assistant equipment manager Tom Blatchford and tell him where he is. Blatchford will then leave the Scotiabank Arena, run to Nylander and drive his car, inch-by-inch, through traffic while Nylander beats the traffic on foot to the arena.
“If I don’t have anything to do, I don’t see what the point is to come early, sit there, and do nothing,” Nylander said. “I’d rather be doing something else.”
If a longer pre-game nap or meal puts him in the kind of headspace to score as many goals as he has, who’s to argue?
“There was one time he was late to a meeting,” points out Timothy Liljegren.
“He got,” said Liljegren, before pausing and deciding on how to phrase the next piece of information, “a little disciplinary action coming his way.”
You play with fire enough and you’re going to get burned, right?
To his credit, Nylander tried to make up for his infraction in his own way.
“Then he played the same day and he scored two goals,” Liljegren said. “That was pretty funny.”
William Nylander probably has the most outward confidence of any Leaf
Nylander always hears the same message from Michael Bunting.
“He’s my favorite hockey player in the NHL,” said Bunting of Nylander. “I tell him that every day.”
That’s the case not only because of everything Nylander does on the ice but more so because of Nylander’s ability to navigate a season with continued confidence that is appealing to Bunting.
“His laugh is contagious. Once he starts belly laughing, you always start chuckling. When me and him did that Timmies shoot, he had me in stitches,” Bunting said.
That laugh can also permeate the Leafs dressing room, where a little bit of levity in a lengthy season is never a bad thing.
— kt (@itsmitchmarney) January 12, 2023
Outside of the tried-and-true veterans on the team such as Mark Giordanono Leaf is as comfortable in their own skin as Nylander.
“I just love his confidence, his attitude,” said Matt Murray. “He knows exactly who he is, and I really respect him for that.”
There’s his daring and flair-heavy sense of fashion, which blows anything most of his teammates wear out of the water.
His puffy mint green Dior jacket seen after a recent loss to the Red Wings when he genuinely questioned a reporter about a teammate’s goal being disallowed (“What was the rule?”) was a highlight, as was his light pink suit worn two nights late.
Nothing, however, tops his plaid jacket with black fur, which might put him at home on the set of “Slap Shot.”
Hey, honey, I’m home 🎶 pic.twitter.com/JQlhSHLIFO
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 8, 2022
“YSL,” he says proudly of the jacket, before seeing the scrunched face of a reporter whose fashion sense begins and ends at Frank and Oak.
“Yves Saint Laurent,” he clarifies with a hearty laugh.
In a league starring for creativity and personality in players, Nylander stands out. And if that gives him the confidence to play the way he has, it becomes harder to argue against his fashion sense.
“When I was a kid, I liked to look good,” he says before clarifying that on practice days, “I’m just chilling in sweats.”
Some guys have it. Willy has it.
— Connor Carrick (@connorcarrick) May 11, 2022
William Nylander might be talented at everything he does
Nylander’s raw athleticism has been a prominent part of his game in Toronto. And this might not endear Nylander to those who believe a little bit of suffering is beneficial to a professional athlete, but he could leave professional hockey tomorrow, pick up a new sport and be equally as successful at it.
Nylander himself says if he weren’t a professional hockey player, he’d certainly find a job in sports.
Justin Holl could see it. The pair have played plenty of tennis against each other over their eight seasons together, including at Toronto’s Hotel X when they were in the bubble in 2020.
“He’s a more skilled player than I am,” Holl said. “But I like to grind him down, bring him in the trenches with me.”
The two would play so often before their time in the bubble that former Marlies assistant coach and Leafs hockey operations assistant Jack Han would video their games.
“(Han) was breaking down our games and he was describing how elegant Willy is and how good his strokes are and then he basically said that I was not a good tennis player, but I was grinding so hard that it was a competition,” Holl said.
Nylander grins when this story is relayed to him.
“Kerf is better,” he said of Kerfoot’s tennis skills.
Pressed a little more on his tennis experience, Nylander admits he used to play more than he has lately. But what about the photo of him playing a teammate?
Smiling Matthews says he’s feeling good about his tennis game despite recent loss to William Nylander
“Obviously, I haven’t been playing a whole lot throughout the season, but I’ve made a lot of strides since last year. So, I’m pretty happy with how it’s progressing.”
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) January 16, 2023
“I’ve had Auston lately,” he said, with his perpetual grin growing.
William Nylander couldn’t care less what people think about him and his game
Here’s the thing: In a market as noisy as Toronto, one where the pressure surrounding the team’s highest-paid players is understandably high, Nylander’s ability to operate without distraction is more of a blessing than a curse to this team.
Different players handle the tough times and the criticism in different ways.
Mitch Marner has been public about how he needed to stop looking at social media. John Tavares appears to get solemn and introspective at times as captain of the Leafs. Matthews possesses just the right amount of snarl and isn’t afraid to bite back at reporters when he doesn’t like the question he’s being asked.
None of these examples showcase areas of weakness whatsoever, of course.
But with Nylander? Even if there were blood in the water around him, the unhurried manner in which he operates means you wouldn’t be able to sniff it.
“He doesn’t care about what anyone else thinks about him,” Jarnkrok said. “I admire that about him. I wish I was more like that.”
Throughout his time in Toronto, Nylander has been a whipping boy, with questions from some corners about his effort. His name was a constant in trade discussions.
But by tuning out the noise and continuing to elevate his play, his game has become more complete and he’s become vital to the team’s success.
“People saying s—, whatever, it doesn’t matter,” said Nylander, adding that he might have seen the way criticism rolled off the back of his father, former NHLer Michael Nylander.
Pressed repeatedly, Nylander keeps coming back to the same answer: There was no turning point. He’s simply always had that confidence in himself.
“It’s always been like that.”
(Photo: Kevin Sousa / NHLI via Getty Images)