Auston Matthews announced his arrival in the National Hockey League in his very first game: He scored four goals that night at the age of 19 and has rarely slowed down since.
William Nylander played 75 games in the American League Hockey over two seasons, got called up late in his second professional year, and scored four goals in his first 12 games with the Maple Leafs.
The trajectory to stardom almost always differs from superstar to burgeoning superstar, but Nylander is doing something most unusual and incredible this hockey season: He has leapt to a place he has never been before, among the best players in the game, and all of this happening in his 10th professional season.
And this is coming in a sport where youth and young stars normally rule. This late kind of dominance doesn’t happen often.
Sidney Crosby scored 120 points in his second pro season and won the Stanley Cup in Year 4.
Alexander Ovechkin scored 65 goals, the most he ever scored, in Year 3.
Bobby Orr won a scoring title, a Hart Trophy and a Stanley Cup in his fourth season in Boston.
Wayne Gretzky won his first scoring title at 19, his first of four Stanley Cups at the age of 23.
Two of the very best players in the NHL today, brothers Quinn and Jack Hughes, are lighting it up and are award candidates at the respective ages of 24 and 22.
This season has been the coming out party and then some for Nylander, who has never placed higher than 20th in NHL scoring before. He has jumped to a new heights, never before being considered to be among the best in the game.
Most talented, maybe? That was always a thought.
The best, though, or being believed to be among the best, that’s a new place for Nylander in this spectacular beginning to a not-that-spectacular early Maple Leafs season.
He was 20th in scoring last year and, when Matthews scored 60 goals and won the Hart Trophy the year before, Nylander was 33rd in scoring.
This season, he has been the Leafs’ best player, among the best in the league, a player getting early season Hart attention for a player who has never received a single Hart Trophy vote before.
“There’s nothing that guy can’t do right now,” said Ray Ferraro, the consummate colour analyst in the game. “Right now, next to Matthews, he’s the best player on the team. If they decided they want him to kill penalties, he could kill penalties, if they wanted him to do something else, I think he could something else.
“I think he always knew in his gut he could be a difference-maker, but nobody trusted him to be that. There were times where you weren’t quite sure which Nylander was stepping up to the plate.
He’s one of those players who does what no one else can do. That’s what great players do. That’s why we watch them.
Ray Ferraro on William Nylander
“Now I love watching him play. He’s one of those players who does what no one else can do. That’s what great players do. That’s why we watch them. They score goals others can’t score. They make moves other can’t make.
“I think you could give William Nylander any piece of sporting equipment — a golf club, a baseball bat, anything — and give him 15 minutes, and he’d be playing that game rather well. He’s that much of a natural.
“What you haven’t taken into account, really is how big and strong he is. There’s a beautiful heaviness to his game. It’s not like Ryan O’Reilly heaviness. Willy’s game is elegant. The strength, the power, the skill. It’s amazing to watch.”
It hasn’t always been that way for Nylander and the Maple Leafs.
Over the years, there has been a tug or war of sorts between Nylander and either of his coaches, Mike Babcock or Sheldon Keefe, about trust and talent and execution.
They always wanted more from Nylander. They always knew there was more there. But getting it, that was the challenge. It was a matter of someone — Keefe or whoever — unlocking the vault and unleashing the treasure.
“It’s often about being comfortable and when you’re not comfortable, players play differently. They play a little more on edge,” said Ken Hitchcock, the Hall of Fame coach. “When a guy gets comfortable with his role, with his linemates, or at least one guy on his line, their careers can take off.
“My belief is, when you’re a top skilled player like Nylander is, or other players like him, and your game elevates to another level, that takes place for me when a player is being comfortable in situations on the ice that are uncomfortable.
“The way (Nylander) takes the puck now and goes to the net, the way he cuts, you can see he’s mentally and physically taking his game to another level. Sometimes that happens early in a career for great talents. Sometimes it happens later.”
This is later. And everything about it, aside from the massive complications of the ongoing contract negotiations, is spectacular. The wait has been worth it when a player ups his game to a level he has never known before.
“Part of what I love about Willy is that he’s unfazed by just about everything,” Ferraro said. “He doesn’t give a s**t about anything. You can’t get to him. You bark at him, he barks back. You write something about him or say something about him, he doesn’t care. He’s put together in a way you rarely see a player. I think his dad (Michael) was a bit that way too.
“The goal Willy scored the other day in Sweden, where he was the centre of attention, and all the pressure was on him, it was all about power and speed and determination. When you put those three together the way he has, you become unstoppable. And I don’t think he’s fazed by pressure at all.”
The Maple Leafs have made authored of their own contractual messes with the salaries paid to Matthews, Mitch Marner and captain John Tavares, making the Nylander future all the more challenging and difficult.
How do you not pay him whatever he is worth after this season? And how do the Leafs juggle all that money and not drop any of the pins involved? The Nylander money would now start in the $11 million a year range on a long-term contract.
Right now, they would have to pay him more than Tavares or Marner because, right now, he’s a more valuable player than either of them. Right now, that math doesn’t add up.
Is Nylander doing all this now because his contract is up, which is an old wives tale in hockey? That has to be a thought for the Leafs. Or, is he doing this now because this is who is he is and this is who he will be in the future?
“I don’t buy the contract stuff and the thought that he’s doing this because his contract is up,” Ferraro said. “I don’t think he tries harder because his contract is up. Truth is, why would he be worried at all about it? And this is Nylander, who doesn’t worry about anything.
“He’s going to get paid. He’s going to get at least seven years from somebody. There is no pressure on him contractually. Whether it’s the Leafs or another team, he’s going to get big money.”
Nylander is currently fourth in NHL scoring, fourth in points per game, sixth in goals. He never has been anywhere near those numbers before — and it isn’t just the accumulation of points that’s impressive, it’s the way in which he’s getting them that takes your breath away.
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“Some skill players take time,” Hitchcock said. “It takes time to go into the hard areas and understand what you can and cannot do. The goal recently, when Nylander was pinned behind the net and still made a pass to the front for a goal — that wasn’t a play he would have made in earlier years. He wouldn’t have been there.
“What year did Mike Modano become great? I think it was his eighth season. Look what (Steve) Yzerman did. He came into the league and lit it up. But it wasn’t until he completed his game that they (Red Wings) began winning. Then he was scoring hard, gritty goals, big goals, making plays at both ends of the ice. That’s what you’re seeing from (Nylander) now.”
A new player. A better player. In his 10th year of professional hockey, after some waiting, finally a brilliant player.