On Online Abuse, Moving Goal Posts, and Tempering Expectations

William Nylander signed his seven year, $6.96M contract December 1, 2018, within minutes of the deadline that would’ve seen him sit out the NHL season and resume contract negotiations in the summer. The contract was summarily evaluated as a good deal for both sides by the Twittersphere, a place where people tend to disagree on everything. Sports Twitter has done its part to normalize microaggressions and enable personal attackers masquerading as professional critics, but that day seemed almost uniformly excited and encouraged by the Nylander contract. Facebook (obviously) and Instagram would tell a different story. On the Maple Leafs official Instagram’s post announcing they’d signed Willy, you’ll find this series of comments from five different users: “Trade him”, “Buy out Nylander and trade him for a defenseman and prospects”, “Spineless team”, “Greedy bastard”, “Could’ve already worn it for 28 games”.

Besides being rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of labour negotiations, the negative commentary is intrinsically ironic. Read “Trade him”, “Spineless team”, and “Greedy bastard”. I can’t imagine these posters would say similar things online of the people they know; their friends and family, for example. As these aren’t performance-based criticisms, they very quickly shift into the realm of personal criticisms. What we know, based on quotes from Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, and Jake Gardiner, is the players read what’s posted online. We don’t object to this sort of online bullying with nearly as much vitriol as we should. The Maple Leafs are not spineless for having settled on a number $1.6M or so under the rumoured ask. William Nylander is not greedy for having bargained for his dues in a league where his labour rights until age 26 are determined by how shitty his drafting team was in the season prior to, and the order in which a set of ping pong balls fell. You can’t buy a player out and then trade him for a defenceman and prospects (??) and, no, William Nylander couldn’t have worn the Maple Leaf in the team’s 28 games prior to his signing, at least without sacrificing almost $10M dollars over a seven-year period.

It’s easy for Joe Average to type away at the keyboard in criticism of a professional athlete, especially because before the age of the internet, online posts were projections in an echo-chamber. Nobody was listening. In 2019, athletes are accessible. They have socials profiles to which they post their daily routines, and the veil of superstardom has fallen to position these athletes as normal people, rather than secretive, inaccessible idols impervious to our online bullying. If we grant it to be true that hockey is just a business, and thus that all criticisms of hockey players online are professional in nature, then it must follow that whatever steps William Nylander has taken to secure his place in in this league, with its average player age dropping year-over-year, with mainstreamed discussion of CTE and musculoskeletal injuries and their effects, are also professional in nature. You cannot take his holdout as a personal affront, engage in online character assassination, and then claim your attacks aren’t personal. Online, targeted harassment is unacceptable. We must be better.

Moving on.

It’s fair, I think, that we expect more from William Nylander going forward. The goal posts have very recently shifted and so too have expectations. That said, any decent strength and conditioning coach, sport scientist, or functional kinesiologist would’ve issued a disclaimer on Nylander’s return with a very high degree of confidence that he’d be underperforming for a period about four-to-six weeks. This is the nature of athletic performance. I have a formal educational background in functional anatomy and worked as a strength and conditioning coach for high school and university athletes for several years. A central tenet in exercise programming from the father of exercise periodization, Tudor Bompa, is that anatomical adaption, or the intentional, forced adaption of the human body to the requirements of a specific sport, demands priority be placed on agonist and antagonist (opposing) muscular balance.

The skating pattern and positional setting over the mid/forefoot to place your hockey stick on the ice demands a lot from the agonist dorsal flexors (top muscles) in your ankle and femoral extensors (quadriceps), but less so from the antagonist plantar flexors (bottom foot muscles) and femoral flexors (hamstrings). In training, Nylander would’ve worked on agonist and antagonist balance, focusing on injury prevention and the negotiations between muscles in the body in “hockey moves”. The reason he looks bigger this year is because he is; he’s spent significantly more time working on muscular hypertrophy and muscular balancing than in years past, when in the four months between August and December he’d have been playing hockey at NHL speed, and focusing his training around game, travel, and practice schedules. His plantar flexors and femoral extensors would’ve already grown dominant, and he’d look more comfortable in stride. Instead, the player is dealing with musculoskeletal soreness from an exercise stimulus that the rest of his team and competitors dealt with in August. It stands to reason his first few weeks would’ve been unduly difficult.

Moving into mid-January, William Nylander is playing well, his isolated impacts and team results the last few weeks bearing this out. The Athletic and stats-based Leafs blogs have produced enough Willy stats content to fill a day’s reading. What I offer is this: William Nylander’s weeks-long underperformance was to be expected. It was normal! His body has, necessarily, taken time to adapt to the pace and schedule of what is unequivocally the fastest league for the fastest sport in the world. The goal posts coming into the new year have shifted. We should expect more from William Nylander in 2019, and the underlying metrics tell the story of a player who’s playing well in a luck slump. My bet is he explodes for some offence sometime soon, because what we know to be true is his body has adapted to the speed and rigours of the NHL game, and his play on the ice is steadily improving.

Regardless of what happens, Leafs Nation has no excuse to attack him personally. He’s trying his best. I can guarantee you that.

 @jakebeleafs

 

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe WordPress.com Blog

Are you new to blogging, and do you want step-by-step guidance on how to publish and grow your blog? Learn more about our new Blogging for Beginners course and get 50% off through December 10th.

WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

How Frederik Gauthier Survived Brendan Shanahan’s ‘Scorched Earth’ Rebuild

Frederik Gauthier has been a polarizing figure in Leafs Nation since former general manager, Dave Nonis, selected him with the 21st overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. From the moment he was chosen “The Goat” was deemed a “safe pick” by scouts and draft analysts. Gauthier earned that distinction having already shown a propensity for strong defensive play in his rookie season with Rimouski of the QMJHL and scouts believed that he would at least be able to fill a depth role in the NHL, even if his offensive game didn’t show any significant progression. Many fans and pundits alike criticized the Leafs for using a first round selection on a player who was perceived as perhaps not having a very high offensive ceiling, which was understandable given the state of the franchise at the time.

Gauthier was drafted by the Leafs after his rookie season in the QMJHL where he produced 22 goals and 38 assists for 60 points in 62 games. Those were decent numbers for a rookie but his play away from the puck is what propelled him to becoming a first round selection in the NHL draft. Leafs fans will remember that through the Brian Burke and Dave Nonis years, the organization had a very clear philosophy for building their forward group. There was an emphasis on the bottom six forwards being physical and defensively responsible, often at the expense of offensive creativity. At 6’5” and with a reputation as a strong defensive player, Frederik Gauthier seemed to fit that bill perfectly. But when he returned to junior the season after he was drafted, fans were undoubtedly hoping to see progress in his offensive game. The progression wasn’t evident and Gauthier produced at about the same rate as his draft year, finishing with 18 goals and 34 assists for 52 points in 54 games.

Despite his lack of offensive uptick, he was named to Team Canada for the 2014 World Junior Championships giving Leafs fans hope that there was still a solid prospect in there somewhere. The following season, he was again sent back to Rimouski but fans and even Leafs brass had to be disappointed when Gauthier’s already pedestrian offensive potential seemed to take a step back. He recorded just 32 points in 37 regular season games. He did, however, make another appearance representing Canada at the 2015 World Juniors in the middle of the season where he was again used mostly as a faceoff specialist and shutdown forward on the way to Canada claiming a gold medal. The season ended on another strong note for Gauthier as he went on to play an integral role in Rimouski capturing the President’s Cup as QMJHL Champions, again giving hope to Leafs Nation that he may eventually blossom into a serviceable NHL player.

As Gauthier finished off his junior career, the Maple Leafs were beginning an organizational overhaul. Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan was brought in as the Leafs new president in April of 2014 and the mandate was clear; restore the Maple Leafs organization to their rightful place as one of hockey’s most prestigious franchises. For the next several months Shanahan assessed the entire organization from top to bottom and decided to clean house the following April. Among others, Dave Nonis along with his assistants and the remnants of Randy Carlyle’s coaching staff were let go. Shanahan pegged Mark Hunter and a mostly unknown 28 year old, Kyle Dubas from the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds, as the Leafs new assistant general managers while bringing other fresh voices such as Brandon Pridham into the fold. Hunter had an impressive scouting background and Dubas was largely viewed as a progressive, analytically inclined, up and coming executive. Basically the antithesis of what Leafs fans had grown accustomed to during the Brian Burke and Dave Nonis years. Shanahan made perhaps his most impressive acquisition a month later when he signed coach Mike Babcock to an 8 year contract. Babcock brought instant credibility to a franchise that had been lacking it for some time. In another somewhat surprising move, Shanahan also lured legendary GM Lou Lamoriello out of New Jersey’s front office to be the Leafs new general manager that July. Many believed that Lamoriello was brought in to be a mentor of sorts to Shanahan’s prized pupil, Kyle Dubas. As part of his apprenticeship, Dubas was charged with the task of managing the Leafs AHL affiliate. All of this begged the question, “What would become of the Goat?”

With the Leafs in the middle of yet another rebuild, Frederik Gauthier made the jump to the AHL with the Toronto Marlies to begin the 2015-2016 season. The move came with little fanfare, especially for a first round pick. Nevertheless, the Toronto media was anxious to know what the new, stats focused Marlies GM thought about the Leafs first round choice from 2013. “People that have got really strong defensive value, and we’ve already seen some of that in baseball…but you know in hockey…how do we measure that and for us he charts out very well in that regard”, Dubas said while also noting that Gauthier may not be someone that pure analytics people would suggest taking in the first round.

There was plenty of excitement and anticipation in Leafs Nation during this time and almost none of it focused on their first round pick from 2013. The team had a brand new front office, one of the best coaches in the world and had added promising prospects like William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Kasperi Kapanen. Heck, there was probably more excitement for Nikita Soshnikov who was an undrafted free agent signing that nobody knew anything about. Expectations for Gauthier were at an all-time low and he became a bit of an afterthought for the fanbase. With no one remaining from the regime that brought him into the organization and a renewed focus on speed and skill, it looked as though Gauthier’s Leafs career might be over before it even began.

Despite all of that, he did enough in his first season with the Marlies to earn a 7 game stint with the big club at the end of the season when they had depleted their roster by selling off pending free agents such as Shawn Matthias and Daniel Winnik at the trade deadline. He managed just 1 assist and a -5 rating during the 7 games and the Leafs were heavily outplayed when he was on the ice as evidenced by his 40.3 CF% over that stretch. He wasn’t ready for the NHL and it looked as though his skating may never be good enough to stick at the highest level.

Gauthier returned to the Marlies to begin the 2016-17 season but was recalled by the Leafs again in December and went on to be a regular on the fourth line for the better part of a month. He failed to earn Babcock’s trust and lock down the job which led to Lamoriello sending a 2nd round pick to Tampa Bay in exchange for Brian Boyle who would go on to anchor the Leafs fourth line as they returned to the playoffs for the first time since the lockout shortened season in 2013.

After returning to the Marlies, Gauthier suffered a gruesome leg injury at the hands of Jake Dotchin during the second round of the AHL playoffs. He was slated to miss the next six months after having surgery to repair the injury. For a prospect who had already endured so many ups and downs and had his skating ability questioned at every level, an injury like that could have been a devastating blow to his career. Instead it may have actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise as his surgery and rehab went so well that he was back on the ice just three months later, re-developing his skating stride with the Leafs trainers, Barb Underhill, and the sports science team. Again, he would make his way back to the Leafs for handful of games before Lamoriello spent another 2nd round pick and some low level prospects bringing in Tomas Plekanec to solidify the Leafs fourth line.

After another first round exit the Leafs parted ways with Lamoriello and named Kyle Dubas as his successor. With the Marlies still in the middle of a playoff run, it gave some players one more opportunity to show the Leafs new general manager what they could do. As Gauthier’s entry level deal was set to expire and he had yet to lock down an NHL job, there was a real possibility that the Leafs would decide not to give him a qualifying offer which would make him an unrestricted free agent. Even with his earlier praise for Gauthier’s defensive abilities, that possibility seemed even more likely with Dubas now at the helm and his reputation established as a forward thinking, analytical mind who wasn’t a fan of “safe players”. After all, players like Gauthier were symbolic of old-school team building philosophies that didn’t seem to have much value to someone like Kyle Dubas.

But before that decision had to be made, there was still the matter of the Marlies final push for a championship under Dubas. Gauthier was playing the best hockey of his career and established himself as an ultra-reliable shutdown center while chipping in 8 points during 20 games as the Marlies went on to win the Calder Cup in a gruelling seven game series with the Texas Stars. Adding a Calder Cup to a resumé that already included a QMJHL championship and World Junior gold medal had to make the organization sit back and take note of Gauthier’s knack for winning, no matter the level of competition. With his strong showing during that championship run under the watchful eyes of Kyle Dubas, and the lack of lower end center depth in the Leafs organization, Gauthier was signed to a 2 year contract just above league minimum salary.

Heading into this season it looked like a two-horse race for the Leafs fourth line center job between Gauthier and undrafted free agent signing, Par Lindholm. After initially beginning the season in the press box, Gauthier has taken advantage of opportunities created by injuries to play in 34 of the Leafs first 43 games. He is skating better than he ever has and is beginning to look more confident and assertive in the NHL, albeit in a sheltered fourth line role. He’s offered a steady defensive presence and has chipped in with 2 goals to go along with 5 assists while earning the trust of Mike Babcock to be in the lineup on a regular basis. He has been driving play mostly in the right direction, currently sitting second behind John Tavares among Leafs centres with a 53.9 HDCF%. Dubas has noted, “You might not find him as visually appeasing as you would a high-end skill guy, but boy he’s extremely effective.” It would seem as though Babcock feels the same way these days and while Gauthier will likely never be a real difference maker, he looks plenty capable of filling a depth role in the NHL.

Five years after being chosen in the first round, Gauthier finally looks to be fulfilling the potential that Nonis and company drafted him for when he was considered a “safe pick” back in 2013. Through all the organizational turnover both on and off the ice during Brendan Shanahan’s “scorched earth” rebuild and Gauthier’s own tribulations along the way, it is somewhat poetic that a draft pick Nonis was so harshly criticized for, who most would agree never would have been made under the current regime, has finally managed to carve out an NHL role in Dubas’ first iteration of the Maple Leafs.

Follow @_nickrichard via Twitter

What Can Kyle Take Away?

Just a few thoughts here as we have a game tonight and it’s the Sabres. It should be the primary focus in easily what promises to be the most heated and contested game of our early season. So I want to move past the Nylander signing talk fast and get him playing. But as we do and to close it out for now I will quickly ask what can our GM can or has walked away from this with and I’ll tell you what I think.

Really who are we or I to know the answer to the question above, what can Kyle Dubas take away from this experience, but you try to put on his shoes as they say (or glasses, which I go bold frame too). I wouldn’t even venture a guess on what he’s learned, only for a slight thought bubble opened when Dubas suggested he would try to avoid going through this again for the sake of the parties collaterally involved.

I’m sure the obvious intention would always be to avoid. It was taxing on everyone I’m sure despite our record. The situation needed settling to properly move forward and evaluate the team, as Dubas referenced in his press conference. But when lines in the sand are drawn, what is it exactly he can do to expedite the “process”? Just win for the himself, the Leafs, the player, and nobody else.

Now that it’s done and Dubas has stated, with mimicking situations about to present themselves that things will be different. Maybe here is how he goes about a non repeat.

I say mimicking but you had extenuating circumstances here, unrepeatable even, of a first time NHL GM in the hotbed of the sport negotiating a high profile contract in a changing salary allocation landscape with a player whose potential and rightfully earned self confidence reaches beyond that of his salary case put forth. Add a family history and it had everything.

With the eyes of the hockey world on it every moment of the way, there were final declarations to be made. First impressions last a lifetime. Agents, Kyle being a former one, fans, managers, players, this had everyone’s attention and the public and industry needed a victor.

Dubas and advisors I’m certain recognized the importance of this perception. And now moving forward, he can remember how unimportant it is.

Nylander came in at 8. Willy knows he’s worth it and I think you’ll see. Dubas looks at his case and says the point numbers bring you in at 6. The middle was set early, at 7. As GM he had to set a precedent or tone. Listen, the writing feels all over the wall on what this boiled down to. Willy wanted it, Kyle wouldn’t give it.

The number was 7.

Toronto’s GM couldn’t lose this one. He just couldn’t. William Nylander believed in himself and needed to be a 7 million dollar player at the very very least. This was all about principle, greed never weighed in the way we thought. It coming down to the 11th hour and Nylander making a call illustrated it even more just how firm they both were in that line, that 7. But in reality…why?

Dubas in the end didn’t go above his number. Technically. The Maple Leafs conceded everything on contract structure and I think Willy calls this a win too. So what will be different next time? How do we get there for the opener with our other ELC’s?

Me, I’m not so sure Dubas has to win in the public again, just as long as he knows he’s won. This negotiation was a one time only necessity, and possibly a realization was made throughout what constitutes a win.

Kyle had to stand tall here and he’s shown he will. But the next time around the perception surrounding his negotiations will be less of a factor. He didn’t buckle and he doesn’t have to in the future, but he also knows there’s not many numbers Nylander comes in at that are honestly going to hurt you. He’s likely laughing his ass off internally having 6 years of Willy at 7. He’s also proven he can make a fair deal. Important to note.

My hope is Dubas understands he can concede in the public eye while knowing he truly hasn’t conceded a thing.

The hockey wolves and pundits can go at his decisions all they want. Burke already did. And the media and blogs criticizing his moves aren’t going anywhere especially with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner still needing to sign. Maybe we at True Blue will be one. Still, Dubas is writing his own story.

So what is it that I think Dubas learned after all this? Close to the line is close enough and the PR win is overrated.

Yes, it is one he had to get under his belt. He won a 15 round split decision and I applaud that.

I’m not so sure next time the bell even has to ring.

The GM made his stand, and he bent without breaking in the public eye. But you can’t tell me for one second Kyle Dubas would blink an eye at paying William Nylander more than let’s say 7.25 million a season. HE KNOWS WHAT HE’S WORTH. And he’ll know with Mitch and Auston. Dubas is aware it doesn’t really matter what his superstars make within a few hundred grand instead of a number we’ve decided on as some sort of victory point.

Dubas has shown he won’t waiver as he was prepared to go past the deadline. This says A LOT. He didn’t cross the line in the sand. His toe, maybe. As we go, I can see him from now on just scuffing it with his foot. It’s not the lines in the sand it’s the friends he made along the way who were carrying him all along. Or something like that.

We had to go through this so maybe we never have to go through it again. And unfortunately it had to be with Nylander. And still we all survived, and Kyle and Willy remain strong.

Thanks to them there’s a good chance we won’t have to go through it again.

Boyz II Men

We’ve gotten so good at, well you have, uncovering and discovering the game. Dissecting it in the lab, freeze frames, even going as far as taking it the law offices. Certified chartered accountants with a minor in salary management. The Leafs fan is cunning today. And also it can tire you out. So I suggest we just put that aside for a few minutes and talk about some human nature. Human Leafs hockey nature because we don’t stray too far off topic here.

I really should say it’s one guy that kinda kicked off this Leafs domino in my mind and on top of it the first story out of the gate was about William Nylander and that’s almost unfair in many respects. Timing wise the team is flirting with 1st overall in the NHL. Although actually Willy ties in with what I’m about to talk about perfectly, I still probably would’ve liked to been talking about something from the on ice performance. Or someone. Someone I’ll save for last.

When the Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the Washington Capitals in 2017, they put up a strong fight. I loved that type of game. No room. Two sides toe to toe, all contested shifts. The club had been exposed to the type of hockey you hear about but we haven’t seen in a long time.

Playoff hockey. The real stuff. It’s not fun at times, it’s not pretty, but it’s real.

The Caps and Leafs were and are very skilled. But it was TIGHT. And it was…HEAVY. It was a grind of a series and we played admirably. Toronto stood tall. In the end a really good experience for the organization. And what was the difference? What separated them?

You know at the top I mentioned how we put the game under a microscope now. It’s enjoyable to be honest. Trying to feel in tune with the Leafs machine. But other times it’s simplistic, it takes less thinking. Put all the analysis aside. In this series, in the end, the Capitals boys were men.

When he said it after the series, it stuck with me because it was so true. Babcock knew why they lost to Washington. Even in the immediacy of defeat you couldn’t help but find the optimism not very deep into his words.

“A lot of our guys are light yet.” Babcock stated after speaking with pride of the growth of his group after the Game 6 overtime loss. “But you know so were those guys a couple years back.”

Plain and plump. Every line doesn’t have to be at Socrates level to be insightful (though Babs has some humdingers). And now the Caps, where are they? They’re the defending champs. Where are we?

Okay, hey look. I’m hitting fast forward here a little. I don’t want to get into the Bruins series, I’m not gonna say there weren’t more factors than “heavy” at play. That wasn’t what it was about, least of all solely. But it was still a major player especially if coupled with the maturation only achieved by the sands of time and a dumbbell.

You give Auston a year of experience and physical growth, let’s see what happens. Look at him out there, he’s not a man. He’s THE man. That’s only going to progress. Mitch vs the Caps, that was a thick and eye opening series. Marner was the “lightest” in terms of weight and the mature Caps provided a chance to be in it and see it first hand. He’s gotten stronger and faster, he’s no boy out there and you see where that’s heading. Correction, where it is.

No different circumstances than Willy getting torched for the Bruins series. *Reminder – he’s a fkn kid. It comes with the territory, sure. But guys and girls that’s growth. That’s how it works. I always think of Datsyuk’s early playoff struggles. We all wanted it but you gotta be willing to watch it and go through it. Nylander has his opportunity now to come back and show what his buddy has. His buddy I’m saving until the end. Exponential growth in the man department. Think of Willy today. Now think of the progression of everyone else. He’s only begun his climb. Actually it’s Kuznetsov who I think of with Nylander, or any of them. Not because they are the same player, but the arcs are similar. Which fits perfectly with what Babcock was trying to say. He was dubbed a show off and a floater and light all that and hey I don’t come from an era that likes anybody doing the goddam bird dance. But today he’s a top top top flight player now and a Stanley Cup champion. All he needed was a chance to grow up, fill out, learn, and take over.

Which takes me finally to the muse of the piece, Kasperi KapaMAN. Who is quite frankly been a pleasure to watch this season.

I saw Kappy straight out of the gate here as a rookie with the Marlies. He was talented, great skills. Duh. He was also thin, but with a long enough frame. No horse, was no bull. Now?

He was just a kid then, but when you saw him on or off the ice you had a different vision of what he’d be. Not what he’s become. And what he’s become is not only a bullet (I mean he’s an absolute bullet) but he’s gonna put his shoulder on you. I’m not talking run you, which he will, but he can lean on you for position. When he locks his stick down and uses his weight on a puck battle, chances are he comes away with it. If not he’s using his powerful legs to track you.

KapaMAN is the poster child for the science department, the R&D department, whatever department is looking after making players lol because they made one hell of one here let me tell you. Killing penalties, scoring goals, making plays, just being a sturdy, reliable winger. He’s been developed so well. Or what I should say is he’s developed himself so well, or allowed himself to be. Two things had to or have to happen with our kids. Can you play the whole ice and can you play right when push comes to shove. Kapanen, he cranks it up in those circumstances. He epitomizes the cultivation the Leafs have gone through, in every respect. Travis Dermott, next man up on the same trail.

Toronto are lucky because they have professional adults to emulate in their room with Patrick Marleau and John Tavares. They are helping to bring out the best in our youth, but it’s in their naturally. Time is bringing it out too. Our boys were born hockey players. But they aren’t boys anymore. As any proud parent will tell you, they’ll always be our boys. But as it turned out it wasn’t a group of young boys in the first stage of their journey who would bring Stanley home.

It will be our men.

Will He?

We haven’t officially started up yet but there’s big Leafs news on the horizon as you know that we felt should be addressed.

In 2015 I was doing the Leafs blog thing at LeafsHub.com and one of the perks became that I got to play media. What I mean by that is we were able to cover certain Maple Leafs events like Marlies games and the annual Rookie Tournament. Basically I was allowed to pretend I was a reporter or something, and during one of these weekend tournaments I got my initial impression of William Nylander. Both on ice and a little off. His on ice performance, the talent was undeniable. It was exciting as a fan just to know what was coming. Off ice, off ice he fell head first into a stereotype this “hockey man” was all to willing to swallow. I already had the pepper out. I ate it up, every last bite.

Thinking back I know I’m telling stories out of school right now but it’s important in what I’m trying to say.

Willy was a bit late for his scrum. I think more than a bit for whatever reason, so the jokes surfaced he was busy working on his hair. When the Scandanavian God did appear it seemed it wasn’t a joke anymore. He was glorious. Comically gorgeous hair. But there’s “primadona seed #1” in my head.

Next, one of our bloggers was there in the stands and stuck around for an autograph session, where he told us how young William was a bit on the cold side. Really eh. Breaking ball freezes him, Strike Two on Willy for a guy like myself who put character above all else and that’s what we were hearing about from top, crest above all.

Later on that weekend over some drinks talk flowed about a rookie lipping off to a popular vet during scrimmages. Outside corner, fastball. Looking. That’s an ol’ boy Strike Three, folks.

From there you find yourself looking for it. I should mention as well I’m a Marner fan to the point of mockery so you can’t help but get caught playing rival in your head. Own your bias. An opinion is now being framed, all you need is a way to lay the foundation and start putting walls up.

I’ll use a Marlies playoff game as an example early in his career where he didn’t come back and catch the trailer (where he probably could have) on a goal that turned out making the difference in a game in a series he was already called out in by his then coach, Sheldon Keefe. Presto, add it all up and we’ve got ourselves an entitled Swedish floater storyline in the making and I had all the ingredients to feed for years.

Keep in mind as I’ve eluded to, you are talking to a chartered member of the old guard. Although inactive currently, I still hold my card. Now I’m tongue in cheek here because there’s no real chance True Blue is looking to slag on anyone of experience or people who have given their life to hockey. When I hear “hockey man” it is not funny to me. It is not a “he he”. We think of volunteer coaches, people who care and are at the rinks all the time with a wealth of knowledge. Inside it, in the rooms instilling values to guide our youth through life. That’s who I think of and they usually deserve some level of respect. Today, it is a punch-line.

But you know what, I get it. Its more than fine because I really really do get it and I’ll tell you why.

The mentality of what is referred to as the “200 hockey men”, how did we get there? Well over and throughout time our views have been sculpted to take those type pieces of information I referenced above, shots at Willy’s character, and especially if skilled (hi Tyler Seguin) put them all together and come up with phrases like “You can’t win with a guy like him.” or “He’s a cancer.”

I’ve walked this exact path and picked the flowers along the way to reaching statements like these and here’s what I can tell you now, without hesitation. It’s mostly horseshit. Yeah, while I was busy framing Willy as a little prick I didn’t talk about when I saw him in the hall later that weekend stretched out with his beats on and nothing but a beautiful kind smile. Or getting his picture with a group of girls and laughing so big from his heart. I get a tear in my eye right now thinking of that innocent kid, just playing hockey.

Now does that mean all of a sudden I think William Nylander is the perfect boy and teammate every moment of his life? Well he isn’t here so until then I’m not checking any box. Does it mean you don’t have a right to be upset he hasn’t signed whatever offer is in front of him? Of course you do. It’s just so complicated. Listen I flipped right out a couple weekends ago. Was wild at him. We’re all upset over this in our own way. But what I will tell you is you can create that image I laid out above with anyone. Any of the kids. You can take fragments from even Auston Matthews young career and portray him in a bad light. Mitch, absolutely. The problem for Willy is he lends himself to it. I don’t know if that’s the right wordage, more that he is vulnerable or susceptible to hockey labelling from every angle.

First the “evil” Dad, who I might say we haven’t heard a single comment from in any way. Sure we know Michael’s rep as a teammate and have heard tales but really at the root it’s contrived conjecture that he has done anything but support his son to make the best decision from their point of view. Can you guess he’s been a problem? Guess away and you might be right but if you don’t think every parent is involved and in this instance given his vantage point and feelings about these contractual agreements being an ex-pro who was well traveled, we should expect it. Nothing is black or white.

And despite Lidstrom and Forsberg we are still hanging on to our stigmas. Swedes have no heart, right? He was born in Calgary and raised in the U.S.? Okay, but you don’t see Willy at Patty’s house with the kids either. You don’t see Willy on fishing trips. So what must that mean? Bad in the room, perhaps? And what about that disappearing act in the playoffs. He’s just not clutch, right? The effort just isn’t there. He’s poor in his own end. What’s fact and what is fiction.

Here’s what I think. William Nylander marches to his own beat. Athletes of today will, get used to it. The beat is probably really fkn cool. I use to fight hard and sometimes dirty to procure what I thought to be the good parts of “hockey culture”, but one of the bad is the cookie cutter mentality of everyone acting a certain way, following certain guidelines, being a “gud pro”. Now don’t get me wrong there, you want good professionals and team concept is EVERYTHING. We aren’t throwing out the baby with the bath water here. But what else you want is players to be comfortable in their skin and act themselves. You want individuals to rise. You want high end game breaking skill and you want goals, baby. Willy plays hard on the puck too don’t kid yourself. He’s special. And if you want to do photo-shoots or run high profile charity events or do commercials, give ‘er.  All these labels we’ve put on players like Kuznetsov for dancing, or Kadri not too long back for partying (wanted him gone too I recall) or whatever the case. It’s a bit of make believe. These guys who’ve been tainted and painted by hockey’s vanilla machine, (I had the brush) I can’t think of two people better to smash these concepts into oblivion than Willy Nylander and one Kyle Dubas.

Dubas is fully aware of the fallacies in hockey observation and more than that he’s aware of the impact the first draft choice of the Shanaplan can have on what Toronto is attempting to accomplish. He’s on record saying Willy is a part of this as long as he is here, to the end. Dubas knows all the nonsense I was talking about at the outset is entirely that, nonsense. He was probably late because it was one of his first scrums over here and he wasn’t cold, Willy can seem almost shy or something I’ve learned. And a 20 year old kid missed a back check in the AHL one time after FILLING THE GODDAM NET DOWN THERE can you even imagine.

The Leafs have a strong room and Willy is a part of the group. And look if turns out there was an unfixable problem or the relationship is broken we will know it in the end and he won’t be here. But there is nothing to say that other than our own conjecture and he isn’t here yet. Especially when you consider the words of his coach who you might think would be most upset. His choice of words are “good kid, good person” and “he loves it here and we love Willy”. Babcock is dying to have #29 back on his lineup card. And these are the words of a principled man. A man who speaks in truths. Alright, so if Dubas loves him, Babs wants him, and Willy’s heart belongs to the Leafs, then wtf is the problem here and why do we still not have a deal? I don’t have the answer, but permit me to try and come up with one.

We’ve beaten this to death so I’m not going blow by blow of the factors at play here. There’s great stories and links out there from all the best at what they do (like this from @billius27 https://medium.com/@billius77/projecting-the-leafs-2019-20-roster-12c6f16be8cd ). I’m not capable of breaking down the particulars as well as guys like Bill and what you’ll get at True Blue Leafs is support for those who can. What I’ll try and do is give it to you straight how I see it. Here goes.

We know this negotiation is as massive as it is complex, for everyone. Dubas/Willy oh yeah, obviously. But it trickles down to everyone. Highlighted by the Maple Leaf RFA’s coming up next season. Not only here in Toronto either, all around the NHL. Agents, managers, the NHLPA, everyone is watching this on the edge of their seat waiting for an outcome as it goes down to the wire. Cap structure is shifting from old to young as we pay for projection not your past. GM’s want the leverage back they once had. Agents know the money isn’t coming on the tail end anymore. The high profile game of chicken is on and the headlights are approaching. How, how could it possibly get to this point?

Easily.

By now most of you reading know all about the contract structure in which the Maple Leafs will pay a premium this season on a 6 year deal, followed by a reduced cap hit in years 2-6 by as much as $300,000-$400,000. Was this the plan all along? To wait it out until now? Highly doubtful and the always reliable Bob McKenzie has said as much. Still, once the season began and no deal was struck it’s as pure and simple as it gets. Why wouldn’t you wait until now.

We’ve looked at it from every angle but the truth is Toronto has a date where they can make their best offer. That date hasn’t come yet but it’s upon us. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s factual and anyone the slightest bit versed in negotiation would agree. If I know this, and you know this, do you figure Lewis Gross knows this? Is it even possible they’ve ackowledged to each other, Dubas and Gross, that they both know this? I have no idea. Remember, we aren’t shoveling shit here and I’ve already stated it’s not likely this was part of a game plan. Yet there’s a number out there of 6.9×6 being discussed that would be more than palatable for Toronto, more digestible still considering the cap reduction. So let’s say a $6.6 million cap hit. The question then becomes well why isn’t it done? The offer apparently hasn’t officially been tabled yet. And why not? Because it will be, and what we will then learn is that this has all been part of, you guessed it, a process. A cruel, painful, and possibly fruitful process.

Ya know, I don’t think I’ve learned more about the game and how I see things as I have from William Nylander. I’m not talking about the game itself as much as I am about perceptions, tags, owning our bias.  I truly mean this when I say Nylander has helped make me look at things differently. It could turn out I should’ve trusted my initial instincts or “first impression” and Willy can screw off down the road but I’m more than comfortable already knowing that I was wrong to judge him the way I did and it’s taken all my power not to fall for it again. He’s gonna be another star Leaf and just stop and think, some of us would’ve traded away this kid out of spite simply for being caught up in a high stakes negotiation where his closest actual value contract hasn’t even been tabled yet. How have we been trained? And if watching Willy the player has taught me a ton, why do I get the feeling it’s no comparison to what Kyle Dubas will teach me about how I should go about evaluating. If you want to go back to process, this has never had anything to do with the Fall of 2018. October, no. November, no. It has everything to do with the future.

The fans, you have had to suffer. The player, he has had to suffer. The team…well they aren’t suffering, lol. But it’s had to be a stressful and trying time for many staff and Nylander improves the group instantly and exponentially. Two months of anguish for 6 years of Nylander at a price everyone can stomach. Sign me up. There is still potential here for a massive win for all parties. Everyone.

Bill Nylander didn’t sign for 6×6 in October and I don’t blame him. He’s likely to add on an additional 5-6 million dollars to his deal. Big win for the player and agent. For those of you saying what’s the differnce between 35 million and 40 million? Well five million friggin dollars, that’s what. That’s another generation of family you can set up. Or it’s 20 Ferrari’s, idgaf. Take that $40 mill, cut it in half for tax. Pay your management team. Pay your agents. The list goes on but you are walking away with about 30% of your earnings. And you don’t know what tomorrow brings, this might be your last kick. Nevermind what the guys behind you are being projected to make. So you look after you, kid. If you’re pissed at him, I understand. But True Blue Leafs isn’t, I can tell you that.

As for Dubas and the Maple Leafs, if he holds his ground to the end, gets Nylander signed long term and doesn’t go above market, all the while using the Collective Bargaining Agreement and working it to the advantage of the player (who gets more cake) and the team (less hit), how could that be anything but a victory. It’s my belief that everyone involved has known the number this ends up at for quite some time. And please, please be 6.9. That just seems right for him.

In conclusion, “Will-he” sign a 6 year deal by Dec.1st? We know he can and we hope he will.

True Blue

True Blue Leafs is a Toronto Maple Leafs blog site coming soon where you won’t find game recaps or day to day coverage. What you will find is if there’s a story to tell about the Leafs we’ll try and tell it right. First and foremost this website is intended to support the team, whether through pats on the back or a stern talking to from time to time, we are fans. What we want to be is informed fans with integrity who care. Through these exciting and possibly historic times in Toronto, True Blue hopes to remind us of just that, to enjoy it, to experience it, to love it. Be true, be, blue, be Leafs.