William Nylander was the beneficiary of an absolute barrage of excuses last season from Maple Leafs fans after getting off to—and remaining on, a disastrous start to the season. By the time it was all over, we’d heard everything from ‘You can’t have a good season if you miss training camp’ to ‘Babcock isn’t giving him enough quality ice time,’ and countless others.
Despite scoring just 7 goals, 27 points (that’s a 0.5 points per game average), and registering a -4 rating in 54 games on the season (in each of the previous two seasons he’d scored at least 20 goals and 60 points), it was as if Nylander had been granted his very own excuse Rolodex (my very first Seinfeld reference on this site) by Maple Leafs fans. No matter how poorly Nylander played, it simply wasn’t his fault—there was always something (or someone) else to blame. But none of these excuses were ever very convincing to me, and certainly none of them is going to fly this season!
For one thing, Nylander wasn’t the only player to miss both training camp and the first 1/3 of the season last year. Shea Weber faced a very similar situation for the Montreal Canadiens, only for very different reasons. While Nylander was busy holding out for as much cash as he could possibly get his hands on, Weber missed the first 24 games of the season recovering from serious foot and knee injuries. In fact, he’d undergone surgery for those injuries and couldn’t train at all for several months (he even missed the final 48 games of the previous season).
Yet somehow Weber didn’t need any excuses to explain away his performance last season. He made an immediate impact for the Habs and ultimately went on to score twice as many goals as Nylander despite being a defenseman with very different responsibilities. He also registered more points than Nylander (33) and had a plus/minus rating of 15 while playing big defensive minutes for Montreal (23:29 per game) in 58 total games played.
I could also cite Hall of Fame member and absolute hockey legend Mario Lemieux, who, after missing multiple seasons with unspeakable injuries and illness (both herniated discs in his back and Hodgkin’s disease—as in cancer), emerged from retirement nearly half way through the 2000-01 season to take the league by storm. Lemieux finished that year with 35 goals and 76 points in just 43 games played. If anyone had legitimate excuses for not performing when joining his team mid-season, it was Mario Lemieux, but once again no excuses were needed, making one wonder why so many were necessary for Nylander.
As for Nylander’s ice time last season, well, there isn’t much of an excuse there either. Nylander averaged 15:31 of ice time per game, which was well within a minute of his overall career average of 16:10 per game. His power play time last season, at 1:51 per game, was also just 10 seconds off his career average of 2:01 per game.
By comparison, other Leafs forwards (like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner) both got just over 2.5 minutes of power play time per game, so not significantly more, though both did considerably more with their time. For instance, Marner alone had over 20 power play points on the season. Nylander had just 6, including only a single goal all year. But clearly he wasn’t being held back by the Leafs coaching staff, who seemed to want to give him every opportunity to succeed.
Even so, for many Maple Leafs fans, Nylander’s production was simply not to be questioned—there was always another game to be played, another opportunity to improve, right up until there wasn’t, at which time Leafs fans began to proclaim a marvellous bounce back season to come in 2019-20.
While I certainly commend Leafs fans for so confidently standing behind one of their (supposedly) top young players, I can’t help but wonder what will happen if Nylander fails to live up to expectations again this season? For his sake (and that of Leafs fans everywhere), I hope he does perform better this season—much better, because excuse time is most certainly over!