The Toronto Maple Leafs, with the newly acquired John Tavares leading the way, are enjoying a strong start to the 2018–19 season. With 36 points from 26 games and the best goal differential in hockey (+26), a team that lost a hard-fought seven-game first-round playoff series to the Bruins last spring now looks to be a potential Cup contender. It could get even better for the Leafs, though, if one of their best young players returns to the team before Saturday afternoon.
Twenty-two-year-old winger William Nylander, eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft, has so far been absent from the Maple Leafs this season, because he doesn’t have a contract. The Leafs’ record of 18-8-0 doesn’t betray much weakness, and Kasperi Kapanen has stepped up to fill the void left by Nylander. But the reintroduction of Auston Matthews’s right-hand man—who’s scored at least 20 goals and picked up exactly 61 points in each of his two full seasons—would undoubtedly make Toronto even better.
So why doesn’t Nylander, a restricted free agent, currently have a contract? Hypothetically, when Nylander’s entry-level deal came to an end after last season, any other team in the league could have given him an offer sheet, and the Leafs would have had to match it to keep him. However, restricted free agency in the NHL is a pretty blatant example of what could generously be called light collusion. GMs, as an apparent unspoken rule, almost never make an offer to another team’s RFA, and doing so might get them blacklisted from future transactions by pissed-off teams.
Add this clear unfairness to the fact that Nylander needed one more year of experience to be arbitration eligible, and he has pretty much no leverage. As long as a gap remains between the deal Nylander wants (which is reportedly big money long-term) and the deal the Leafs want to give him (which is reportedly medium money long-term), all Nylander can do right now is refuse to sign the offer and sit out. That’s what he’s doing right now, hanging out with junior players over in Sweden instead. If he doesn’t sign by 5 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, he’ll be ineligible to play this season.
The Leafs have remained outwardly optimistic that Nylander will return, even during this week as the clock winds down. Citing his conversations with GM Kyle Dubas, head coach Mike Babcock said on Thursday, “We think Willy is going to be here for a long time. We think he’s going to be a career Leaf. That’s what we think, that’s what we believe.”
Added Auston Matthews, “You know he wants to be here and I think everybody expects he’ll be there very soon.”
More adorably, the slightly more nervous-seeming Kasperi Kapanen has been literally dreaming about Nylander’s return:
“I’m not going to lie, I’ve had a couple dreams where he’s signed in my sleep and I wake up and it’s just a big disappointment,” Kasperi Kapanen, Nylander’s closest pal on the Leafs, said after practice on Thursday afternoon. “I texted him and let him know about that and we had a good laugh. Obviously, it would be nice to just have him here.”
Toronto obviously would like Nylander to play this year, and Nylander surely doesn’t want to waste a season getting no money at all or much less money playing overseas, but the clock is ticking. The Leafs are probably correct to be skittish about handing an expensive long-term contract in this situation. Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Kapanen are all making less than $1 million this year, and become restricted free agents next offseason. Matthews for sure and likely Marner too will command more than Nylander, so setting a high bar with Nylander’s contract now could screw them very quickly. Particularly with the deadline so near, a short-term “bridge deal” seems like the mostly likely outcome if both sides do come to terms.
Nylander, for his part, could viably sit out for the whole season and still return to a solid career à la Michael Peca with the Sabres in 2000. Still, even if a late trade or a last-minute agreement could still happen, this is a really shitty bind for a kid with so much talent to be stuck in. With no arbitration and no other offer sheets to give him an out, Nylander’s fate remains strictly in the hands of some arcane rules, a gentleman’s agreement, and the whims of the team that drafted him.
Update (12/1 5:47 p.m. ET): They figured it out.