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William Nylander's contract status, move to centre the focus as Leafs hit the ice

William Nylander was in the middle of it all.

The Maple Leafs forward received lots of attention — camera operators, photographers and reporters dissecting his every move — on the ice as he started what's expected to be a long audition at centre.

Nylander was again the focus at the conclusion of Toronto's first on-ice training camp sessions Thursday for a very different reason.

His contract.

The skilled Swede, who can become an unrestricted free agent next July, has yet to sign an extension as he heads into the final season of his current deal.

Just don't expect him to discuss it publicly.

"I want to be here," Nylander said in the sunshine outside Toronto's practice facility. "But I'm going to let my agent and (Leafs general manager Brad Treliving) take care of that."

He then added politely: "I'm not going to answer any more questions about my contract."

But that won't stop it from being a talking point on the outside for a team without much salary cap space and the status of the NHL's spending threshold for 2024-25 and beyond unclear as the league finally emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic's crushing financial implications.

"I still have one more year left," Nylander said. "That's just how I'm thinking about it."

Nylander signed that six-year, US$45-million extension on Dec. 1, 2018, following a long impasse with former Toronto GM Kyle Dubas.

The deal turned out to be a bargain for the Leafs, who would go onto ink Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for significantly more money in the months that followed.

Previously set to also become a UFA next summer, Matthews signed a four-year, $53-million pact that ties him to the organization through 2027-28 on Aug. 23. Marner has two seasons left on his deal with an annual salary cap hit of just under $11 million.

Leafs captain John Tavares, also with two seasons left at $11 million, said earlier this week Nylander is "built" to play in Toronto thanks to his easygoing personality.

"Very nice comment," the No. 8 pick at the 2014 NHL draft said. "I've only known Toronto and this is the place I want to be."

The soft-spoken Nylander set career-highs for goals (40), assists (47) and points (87) in 2022-23 before adding 10 points (four goals, six assists) in the playoffs as the Leafs advanced in the post-season for the first time since 2004.

"You just gotta go out there and have fun every day," he added of living in city's media and fan fishbowl. "That's important."

Head coach Sheldon Keefe doesn't expect an uncertain future to faze the 27-year-old.

"Extremely confident in himself," Keefe said. "I would never describe Willie as distracted by anything.

"I'm not concerned about Willie being able to focus on what we need him to do on the ice."

And to start training camp, that's playing centre. Nylander spent the first day skating between Calle Jarnkrok and new addition Max Domi.

"Unbelievable player," Domi said. "Great kid, super humble and works really, really hard."

The overwhelming majority of Nylander's NHL career has been spent on the wing, but he was drafted as a centre and played the same position for Keefe in the AHL.

The plan is to give him time to grow into the role during camp and pre-season to lay a groundwork of fundamentals and systems, instead of the more challenging task of moving to the middle mid-schedule with reduced practice time.

"I'm excited," Nylander said. "I told Sheldon wherever he wants me to play, I'll play."

Keefe, who said Treliving's fresh perspective after taking over from Dubas in May played into the shift, and Nylander have been with the organization for the better part of a decade.

They've experienced highs and lows together, but the coach's belief in the player's ability to push even further — despite some tough conversations through the years — remains firm.

"Willie can do whatever he puts his mind to," Keefe said Wednesday. "He's that good. He's that powerful. He's that strong ... he wants to accomplish great things.

“There's common ground there where he wants to be great. I'm seeking help him to do that."

MATTHEWS ON THE KILL

The Leafs plan to audition Matthews on the penalty kill, which will see him join Marner as a top-line option when Toronto's down a skater.

And there are minutes available after the Leafs waved goodbye to forwards Alexander Kerfoot, Noel Acciari, Ryan O'Reilly and Zach Aston-Reese this off-season.

Keefe pointed out the team gave Matthews a look on the kill a couple seasons back, adding the No. 1 pick in 2016 is "willing and able" to do whatever's asked.

"It's not necessarily about whether he can do it," the coach explained. "It's about how it affects the team."

Killing penalties usually means missing the next shift.

"When you have one of the best 5-on-5 players in the league playing a little bit less, that's not always a good thing,” Keefe said. "What I would like to see is that our group develops as such that we do use Auston on the penalty kill, but depending on what's happening in the game."

TEST PASSED

The Leafs got their conditioning out of the way early with tough, 20-minute skating tests before heading to the locker room to regroup ahead of drills.

Keefe was impressed with the players' stamina and approach.

"It's built to be miserable ... and it is miserable," he said. "We like to lead with the hard things. Playing in the NHL, winning the NHL, is not an easy thing.

"It's a mental test more than anything."

Nylander was asked about the skate afterwards.

"It's not too bad,” he said, before catching himself and adding with a smile: "Well, it is annoying.

"Nice to have it over with."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2023. 

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