William Nylander works on his stick skills during warmups
Photo credit: Maple Leafs on Twitter/X

Nylander, Keefe completely checked out, Leafs end year on losing skid

Published April 18, 2024 at 10:02

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe confirmed following last night's loss in Tampa Bay that he and William Nylander had checked out over the last week of the season in preparation for playoffs.

The Leafs ended the regular season last night against the Tampa Bay Lightning and limp into the playoffs on a four-game losing streak. Falling 6-4 to Tampa, failing to get Auston Matthews his 70th goal of the season and not snapping Nylander's 11-game goalless streak leave much to be desired heading into Game 1 against the Boston Bruins Saturday night.

Everyone was well aware that last night's game didn't mean anything and was going to be a high-scoring affair given the rosters and goaltenders, but I don't think many expected Keefe to admit so publicly postgame that he and his players were not at all into last night's game.

"I am not afraid to admit to you that this is the first regular-season game where I was watching video of another team during the intermissions. We are working all we can to get ourselves prepared and ready to go [for Boston]. That is where our mind is at."

One could look at it as him being checked out, or it could be taken as a sign that he is hyper-focused on doing everything he can to set his players up for success against the ghosts of seasons past.

Was playing Nylander the right decision given what Keefe knew about where his head was at?

Nylander entered game 82 on a ten-game goalless drought, last scoring March 26th against the New Jersey Devils. In that span, he had just four assists as well, a significant drop in his production throughout the rest of the season. His lack of production over the final two weeks of the season cost him his first 100-point season, although he set a new career high with 98 points. A more engaged Nylander could have easily joined Matthews and given the Leafs their first season in franchise history with two 100-point scorers.

Following the game, Keefe was asked about Nylander's drought and revealed that Nylander has also been checked out for the last week, caring much less about the regular season, placing all of his focus on the playoffs.

"His numbers are down in the last little bit, but his game hadn't been. Just last week, he was dominating play. The puck wasn't going in for him, sort of like it wasn't with Auston in the last couple of days. In the last week, Willy has shown he is done with regular-season hockey and ready to move along. I am not concerned about Willy."

Understanding that the Leafs didn't have any options in the final two games of the regular season to sit forwards due to injuries to Bobby McMann, Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok, if Nylander was truly "done" with regular season hockey, maybe Keefe should have ran 11 forwards and 7 defensemen last night and given extra opportunity to Matthews to hit 70 goals. A shift like this one, for example, should never be okay, regardless of the time of the year.

I think Nylander's behaviour to end the regular season would have been much more palatable if he hadn't just signed an 8-year mega extension, which carries an $11.5M cap hit which is set to kick in next season. If you're making that sort of money, you can't take any nights off - even if it is the end or the regular season.

Contrary to popular belief, the "Core Four" have produced in the playoffs

Nylander enters these playoffs with 25 points in his last 25 playoff games and has often been considered the Leafs' most consistent playoff performer in recent years. Hopefully him being checked out from regular season hockey early means he continues to produce in the playoffs along with Matthews, who holds the same number of points in the same number of games. Mitch Marner has 26 points in 25 games and Tavares has 14 points in his last 18 playoff games. The four of them have produced in the playoffs, but they have been unable to answer the bell when called upon in elimination games, aside from the series clinching goal scored by Tavares last post-season.

Their ability to contribute when it is absolutely necessary will once again be under a microscope, but the hope is that the additions of Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi, along with the emergence of Bobby McMann will help take some of the pressure off of them. After all, it's why GM Brad Treliving brought in Domi and Bertuzzi in the off-season. These were additions specifically with the playoffs in mind. Now, it's their time to show Treliving that he was right to take a chance on them.

April 18   |   463 answers
Nylander, Keefe completely checked out, Leafs end year on losing skid

How many points will William Nylander produce in the Leafs' first round series against Boston?

4 points or less20544.3 %
5-7 points19141.3 %
8-10 points5411.7 %
More than 10 points132.8 %
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