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 seasonand 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.
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.