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Nylander regains form with Maple Leafs

Forward has points in all four games, credits starting season on time unlike 2018-19

by Dave McCarthy / Independent Correspondent

TORONTO -- William Nylander is looking a lot more like the player he was during his first two full NHL seasons and Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock is noticing.

"That was his best, by far," Babcock said after Nylander scored in a 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Monday. "I thought it was his most competitive game this year and it's one we'd like to see on a regular basis. He has all the ability."

The 23-year old forward has a four-game point streak (two goals, two assists) to start the season for the Maple Leafs (2-1-1), who play the Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; TVAS, SNO, SUN, NHL.TV). 

"I felt pretty good. It was a good game, I thought I was skating a lot with the puck and having the puck a lot," Nylander said.

It is a much different start for Nylander than last season when he missed the first two months as a restricted free agent before agreeing to a six-year contract shortly before the December 1 deadline to play in the NHL that season. 

What resulted was a forgettable season that saw him finish with 27 points (seven goals, 20 assists) in 54 games after returning to the lineup on December 6, a significant decline in production after he had 61 points in each of his first two full seasons. He began with two assists in his first 11 games, did not score a goal until his 12th game, had three points (one goal, two assists) through 19 games and did not score his second goal until his 24th game last season.

What has the difference been this season?

"I think it's more a part of being in the preseason, getting games in and it's a case now where everybody starts at zero versus last year, it was halfway through the year and guys were 30 games deep and I hadn't played yet," Nylander said. "So that's probably the biggest factor."

Babcock said he never saw Nylander play the way he is this season at any point last season.

"No, never," the coach said. "(Monday against the Blues) was one of his best games, his most physical games, most tenacity on the puck, making plays. We never saw that last year, for whatever reason it just never got to that point."

The level Nylander is playing at, especially against the Blues, is what he expects of himself on a consistent basis.

"I expect myself to be dominant out there with the puck and create scoring chances," Nylander said. "That's the level I want to be at every night, that's for sure. I just feel like everything feels like it's going good right now and feeling good. My strength and speed being where I need it is obviously a big key to that."

Babcock said he has been most impressed with Nylander's ability to track the puck and get it back for himself, instead of relying on teammates to get him the puck.

"I just think Willie last game won a bunch of races and battles and so when he does that, he has the puck," Babcock said. "Sometimes you get the puck because other guys get it to you but if you want to have the puck all the time, you can count on your teammates a bit, but you have to count on yourself. The more he goes to get it, the more dynamic he'll be."

Auston Matthews, who has centered a line with Nylander and left wing Andreas Johnsson this season, said he thinks being with the team from the start of training camp has made a big difference for Nylander.

"I think just having training camp and not walking into the season halfway through and such a long time in between games was big," Matthews said. "Having a good summer and not having his mind on all that stuff that was going on (with the contract), it just gives you a good headspace and he looks really good, he's hungry. It's been a blast playing with him and Andreas."

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