Nylander inked a new six-year, $45 million contract with Toronto on Saturday ending a holdout, which forced him to miss the club’s first 27 games.
It was the 22-year-old forward who, along with agent Lewis Gross, finally picked up the phone 45 minutes prior to the signing deadline to get a deal worked out. Had he not signed prior to 5 p.m. eastern time on Saturday, Nylander would’ve been forced to miss the entire 2018/19 NHL season.
“I was like ‘well, now we have to get something going here, deadline is coming up.’ I talked to the (players’ association) and they said the contract should be done by 4:30, so that’s when I called. It was tight.”
The 6-foot, 191-pound Nylander scored 45 goals and 135 points in 185 games with the Maple Leafs over parts of three seasons. Internationally he’s represented Tre Kronor at the Under-18 level, two World Juniors and at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship where he scored a team-leading 14 points in 10 games collecting tournament MVP honours and helping Sweden win gold.
But with his entry-level contract expiring in July, and without arbitration rights, his only option was to withhold services until a new deal was reached.
In the end, Nylander came down from a reported $8 million per season ask to ink a deal, which carries a cap hit of $10.28 million this season and $6.9 million in years 2-6.
“I had had a discussion with Lewis Gross at 12:30 central time (in Minnesota) and we kind of had a blunt discussion at that point and then just waited to see where things would go and then Lewis called with William on the line,” Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said of Saturday’s discussions. “Between then, you just remain optimistic that you’ve put your best foot forward and you have belief in your process and that things would work out.”
Was there any concern that it might not get done prior to the final call?
"If I'm sitting here right now saying that with 45 minutes left and he's not signed that I had no concern, then I'm a liar," Dubas laughed. "Yes, there was concern."
Once a deal was agreed to, Nylander was concerned about getting the paper work filed in time.
“I called Kyle like, ‘did you get it, did you get it?’ and he was like ‘we got it, we got it,” Nylander said laughing. “And then they sent in and it was like, ‘OK, it’s good’.”
Even with the early season success, Nylander’s teammates were anxiously awaiting his signing as the team prepared to face the Minnesota Wild on Saturday.
“I was checking my Twitter feed probably every 15 seconds, that’s for sure,” said Kasperi Kapanen. “Obviously it kind of went down to the wire there, and I was getting nervous a bit, but once it was done, it was a good feeling obviously and then everybody kind of regrouped, focused and it was a good day all-in-all.”
Kapanen, who famously scored the gold medal-winning goal for Finland at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, is one of Nylander’s closest friends on the team. The pair played together with the American Hockey League’s Marlies and were roommates last season.
“I hadn’t seen him forever so it was just nice to see him and kind of catch up and laugh a bit. Actually seeing him with my own eyes in Toronto, it was good,” Kapanen said. “It’s obviously a lot of emotions kind of in the air. It’s good to have him back.
“The guy has got some ice in his veins, that’s for sure, let’s put it that way. Obviously it’s a business, everyone wants to play as much as they can. But at the same time, everyone wants to get paid and get a fair deal. I’m glad the guys could work it out.”
The Calgary-born Swede admitted he never expected negotiations to drag on into December figuring he’d likely miss a little bit of September’s training camp at most.
The Maple Leafs’ 2014 first-round pick pointed to last month’s face-to-face meeting with Dubas in Switzerland as the turning point in the talks.
“That was probably the first time I talked to Kyle by myself and I think that meant a lot and I think that started to get stuff moving,” he said. “We talked about compromising and trying to get a deal together. That’s what it came down to.
“We didn’t really talk about numbers or anything, it was just how to get it done and what was going to happen when I get back.”
For Dubas, it was important to see Nylander in-person and get a better understanding of the issues at hand.
“I wasn’t going to let this thing go on without going and sitting across from him face-to-face and seeing what may have been bothering him, what was kind of hindering the process from moving forward,” Dubas explained. “If there was anything that we were doing that we could change that could start to move it forward and it was good.”
Under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement, the Leafs were only allowed to give Nylander a no-trade clause in the final year of the deal; however, Dubas reiterated to Nylander multiple times during the talks that he has no intentions of moving him despite a potential cap crunch ahead with both Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner requiring new deals after this season.
“I think he’s someone that just continues to improve and get better,” said Dubas. “He’s already put up some excellent statistics and numbers for a player his age.
“He continues to grow as a player not just as a producer of points which we know he can do, but continues to get better and better - I just have faith in knowing him, his dedication to his craft, that he’s only going to continue to improve.”