OAKVILLE, Ont. – William Nylander stepped up to his putt, struck it clean and raised a fist in celebration after the ball dropped in the cup.
If only contract negotiations between Mitch Marner and the Maple Leafs were that straightforward.
If anyone knows what the talented winger is feeling as Marner inches closer to hitting restricted free agency, it’s Nylander. He was the last Toronto forward to go through what can be a challenging and emotionally draining exercise — one that, for him, dragged agonizingly into last December.
“It’s always a tough process, but in the end it will work out for both sides,” Nylander said Thursday during the NHLPA Golf Classic. “It was hard. It was always going back and forth (and) sometimes there’s no talking at all.
“That’s just a part of negotiations.”
It’s difficult to know how talks between Marner and the Leafs are going, with neither side publicly providing any information of substance, but the fact the two camps have been unable to come to an agreement with free agency set to open Monday has to be concerning from a Toronto perspective.
“I’ve talked to him a little bit,” Nylander said of Marner. “It’s just the beginning of summer. You’ve got a lot more time to go, so there’s no worries.”
That’s not how many fans are feeling.
After the Leafs were bounced from the playoffs by the Bruins in April for the second time in 12 months, general manager Kyle Dubas called getting Marner signed “priority one.” But negotiations have moved slowly with the 22-year-old, who led Toronto with career-bests in points (94) and assists (68) in 2018-19, and also set a new personal high-water mark in goals (26).
Nylander eventually signed a six-year, US$45-million contract to end an impasse that cost him the first two months of last season, but he said speaking face-to-face with Dubas when the GM flew to Europe was what really got the ball rolling.
“That was a big part of it,” Nylander said. “We were kind of at a standstill.”
Dubas said at the NHL draft last week that the Leafs are putting the finishing touches on new contracts with fellow RFA wingers Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson.
But getting a deal done with Marner, who was allowed to begin speaking with other teams Wednesday ahead of potentially getting an offer sheet thrown his way when free agency opens Monday, has proven more difficult.
With star centres Auston Matthews ($11.6 million) and John Tavares ($11 million), and Nylander ($6.9 million) already chewing up nearly $30 million, the Leafs are walking a fine line with about $19 million in salary cap space available, and a number of holes that need to be filled on the roster.
Dubas added Toronto won’t necessarily match an offer sheet signed by one of its RFAs and might instead allow the player in question to walk in favour of receiving up to four first-round draft picks as compensation.
The trade of Patrick Marleau the Carolina Hurricanes added $6.25 million in salary room for Toronto, but Nylander said the losing of the veteran winger is tough.
“He meant so much to our team,” Nylander said of Marleau, who is now an unrestricted free agent after Carolina bought out the final year of his contract. “It’s really hard to see a guy like that go.”
Nylander, 23, was perceived as being greedy in some social media and talk radio circles before signing, something that has started to bubble to the surface with Marner rumoured to be asking for a contract in the $10- or $11-million range annually.
“The social media part, you just shut that off,” said Nylander, who was among a number of NHL players teeing it up at Glen Abbey Golf Club. “There’s no reason to be bothered by that stuff. Fans care a lot and they just want you to sign and be there with the team.
“Every player just wants a deal that they think they deserve.”
In 239 career NHL games, Nylander has 162 points (55 goals, 107 assists) to go along with 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 20 playoff outings.
The Calgary-born Swede, who registered seven goals and 27 points in 54 regular-season outings before scoring once and adding two assists in Toronto’s seven-game loss to the Bruins in the opening round of the playoffs, never really got going in 2018-19 after finally rejoining the team.
But the underlying numbers suggest Nylander’s campaign was more unlucky than bad, especially as he started to find his legs.
His pithy 5.4 shooting percentage was less than half the winger’s career average (11.1 per cent), while his even-strength shot differential — also known as Corsi — was highest on the Leafs in the regular-season at 56 per cent.
Nylander led last month’s world championships with 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in eight games for Sweden, which fell 5-4 in overtime to eventual champions Finland in the quarterfinals.
“The worlds is obviously how I play hockey,” he said. “That’s the way I’m going to play.”
Asked if he’s using last season as motivation, Nylander said it’s fading from his rear-view mirror.
“It’s already behind me,” he said with a little grin. “It’s gone.”
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