As the calendar inches towards the middle of October, the NHL begins to hit the meat of the season. Team identities are beginning to form, and a slight insight into how the standings will be playing out is coming to fruition.
With that, though, comes roster decisions. For most teams, it comes in the form of determining whether to send players back to juniors or the AHL before the nine-game mark.
For others, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, it is based on a restricted free agent and his contract. The case in question for general manager Kyle Dubas, as has undoubtedly been spoken on by the entirety of the hockey universe, is William Nylander.
The eighth overall pick in 2014 has spent two full seasons in the NHL, as well as part of one other. In his 185 career games, he has 135 points. In 13 career playoff games, his points-per-game percentage is slightly lower with eight points in 13 games.
The Swedish-born forward has been nothing short of spectacular for Toronto. He is large part of the reason that the team has turned it around in the last three years, going from a bottom-feeder to a Stanley Cup contender.
However, when Dubas signed superstar center John Tavares to a massive seven-year deal worth $77 million on July 1, questions began to arise about Nylander’s future in the world’s hockey capital.
Auston Matthews, who is due for Tavares money or higher, and Mitch Marner each need new deals at the end of the 2018-19 season. Jake Gardiner is also set to become an unrestricted free agent, and Connor Brown’s team-friendly $2.1 million per year contract is ending the year after.
Despite the concerns, Dubas remained confident in the offseason about keeping his nucleus together. When asked up front about the issue of keeping Nylander, Tavares, Matthews, and Marner together on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast by Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek, Dubas pulled no punches in his reply.
“We can, and we will.”
Dubas and his team, though, have not been able to work out a deal with Nylander’s camp yet. Reportedly, the two sides still sit largely apart.
A fair comparison for Nylander could possibly be David Pastrnak, who signed a six-year, $40 million extension with Boston last September after a lengthy holdout. The deal carries an average annual value of $6.66 million.
That range, or upwards to $7.25 million per season, seems fair for Nylander. But, with the Matthews contract looming, it makes sense that Dubas is wary of this situation.
The next step remains unclear. If Nylander is not signed by Dec. 1, he is forced to sit out the entire season. Nylander has also supposedly been contacted by at least one KHL club regarding his services.
In the end, though, it may be wise for Dubas to swallow his pride and field offers on the 22-year-old. The Maple Leafs have started the season 5-1-0, and they show no signs of slowing down offensively.
The team’s biggest hole remains on defense. Freddie Andersen is a rock in net, but he may not be able to withstand the amount of shots he is currently receiving over the course of an 82-game season. It can wear out a goalie fast, especially one that is preparing for a postseason run.
Looking for a trade partner for Nylander and receiving a defenseman, preferably a right-handed one, in return is not a bad bet for Toronto. Although options can be limited at this point in the season, players such as Justin Faulk in Carolina or Matt Dumba in Minnesota are intriguing options.
Faulk, although older than some other options, is on a reasonable $4.83 million cap hit for this season and next. With the acquisitions of Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan, Faulk might finally be pushed out the door in Raleigh.
Dumba recently signed a five-year extension at $6 million per with Minnesota, but that does not mean he is untouchable. His modified no-trade clause does not kick in until 2021-22.
Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, and Jonas Brodin are more than capable of shouldering the load on defense with Dumba gone. Bruce Boudreau’s offense could use a kick as well, so it can be a win-win.
Trading someone like Nylander will inevitably hurt. Given the talent he possesses, he will light it up no matter what team he ends up on.
If you sit in the shoes of the Maple Leafs, though, you have to begin to wonder what the best move for the long-term success of your franchise is. The team desperately needs another defenseman, and maybe that will be enough to push them over the edge into Stanley Cup territory.
Dubas and Toronto still have time to work everything out with Nylander, but things will start coming to a head near the start of November. Even if the Leafs are set up for success in the near future, a big piece of that will have to be decided within the upcoming weeks.