Seriously, self-deprecating William Nylander turning in another strong season for Leafs

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Comical guy, that William Nylander.

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Or, another way to put it, poking a little bit of fun at yourself never hurt anyone.

The Maple Leafs winger is sitting on a team-low minus-13 mark, which, in the grand scheme, doesn’t matter a whole heck of a lot. 

But Nylander amusingly brought up his plus-minus on Friday when we asked him about scoring a pair of even-strength goals 24 hours earlier in the Leafs’ win against the Washington Capitals.

“I joke with some of the guys, I say if you guys want a minus, come play with me,” Nylander said, eliciting laughter in the media scrum. “It was nice to get a few, that’s good, but that’s not really a focus. It’s just on winning games.”

Usually the first on the ice at practice and one of the last off, Nylander has put together his best offensive season with the Leafs. His second goal on Thursday was his 30th, bringing him to within one of his career-high, set two seasons ago. His 41 assists have equalled his career-best, done in 2017-18. And Nylander’s 71 points easily are the most he has put on the board in the NHL, blowing past his previous high of 61, done twice.

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More recently, Nylander has made a smooth transition to the wing on the third line with centre David Kampf and Pierre Engvall, giving the Leafs a legitimate scoring option deeper in the lineup.

At the same time, Ilya Mikheyev has moved up to play with captain John Tavares and Alex Kerfoot and has been a good fit.

“Having a threat like Willie on the third line makes it a little bit more challenging for teams that generally rely on their top four to play against your best players,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said after the club practised on Friday at the Ford Performance Centre. 

“(Switching Nylander and Mikheyev) allowed us to change the dynamic a little bit. We’ve liked the results. We like how the players have responded and we like how the team has responded shift over shift.

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“You’re seeing positive steps from Engvall since playing with Will, and that’s really what you want, is your best people to impact other players.”

The Leafs will look to close the season series with the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night with another win, as the Leafs have taken two of the previous three meetings in 2021-22 in the Battle of Ontario. Erik Kallgren will get the road start for the Leafs, playing in his 11th game in the National Hockey League, as Toronto and Ottawa hook up for the first time since the Leafs won 6-0 at Scotiabank Arena on Jan. 1.

A victory would be the Leafs’ 49th win of the season, which would tie the franchise record set in 2017-18. The Leafs’ 102 points are the third-most in team history, three off the record of 105, also set four seasons ago.

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You would think there is a strong chance that Auston Matthews scores two goals in Ottawa to become the first NHL player since the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos in 2011-12 to score 60 in a season. Matthews has 23 goals in 25 career games against the Senators, the most he has scored against any NHL opponent.

Nylander certainly has done his part in the team success, even if he has needed a push from Keefe at times. 

What never wanes is Nylander’s confidence. The pressure rolls off Nylander’s shoulders rather easily. 

“His belief in himself doesn’t waver — that’s what we like about him,” Keefe said. “He has handled this well since we’ve changed the lines up a little bit.”

Said Tavares: “That’s something that I think is a real bonus for Willie, is his ability to always be confident in himself and not to take things too seriously. At the same time, he’s extremely driven.”

All the while, expect Nylander to continue to take playful little shots at himself.

“Scoring 30 is little compared to Auston,” Nylander said with a smile. “But it’s nice to score 30. I don’t know what else to say.”

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