Toronto Star

Last-minute deal a key piece of puzzle for promising squad


ST. PAUL, MINN.— Time was a-ticking and about a half-hour before the deadline to get a deal done, so that William Nylander could play for the Maple Leafs this season, general manager Kyle Dubas’s phone rang. It was Nylander. “They called and William said, ‘Do you want to make a deal?’ ” said Dubas. “When he said what he did at that point, I knew we were on the right track. Right down to the wire.”

There were i’s to dot and t’s to cross, and assistant GM Brandon Pridham had to make sure all the papers were in order when they were filed with the league, but the deal was done with only a few minutes to spare.

The Leafs had come up by nearly $1 million a year from the initial offer that caused the standoff, and Nylander finally agreed to a six-year, $45-million contract (all dollars U.S.) — though he won’t see $3.2 million of it after missing roughly a third of this season.

Because it was signed in-season, the salary-cap rules are unusual.

This year, the cap hit — or average annual value of the contract — is $10.21 million, easily fitting into the team’s space. For the remainder of the deal, it’s $6.96 million.

How much of an issue that will be with the likes of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner due for renewals will be determined once next year’s salary cap is set.

“I’m happy for our team and I’m happy for William,” said Dubas.

“I wish that we were able to get this

done before training camp and he was able to be a part of this, but the team’s record right now is a testament to the coaching staff, and the players in the group especially.

“They haven’t really allowed this to become a distractio­n, even though — and I totally understand the questions that have picked up of late — they’ve continued to stay focused, they’ve had a great start to the season, and I’ve learned a lot about the coaches and the players and their ability to do so. So I’m very thankful for them that they were able to perform the way that they have, and I’m excited now to add William to the group, because it’ll make us better.”

Nylander was to land in Toronto on Sunday, a day off for the team.

“Going home,” he tweeted, with an accompanyi­ng photo of his Maple Leafs equipment bag.

He’ll have to pass a physical, and while coach Mike Babcock expressed his desire to have Nylander play as early as Tuesday in Buffalo, Dubas threw a wet blanket on that.

“Everyone wants to get back in and get playing right away. We still have to play the long game with him. It’s a six-year contract,” said Dubas. “We don’t want to rush to get him on Tuesday, or potentiall­y Thursday and have that forgo his health and well being. We’ll get all that taken care of, and hopefully in the next week or so he’ll be back in action.”

Then Dubas added: “I broke it to Mike.”

All this happened while the Maple Leafs were preparing to play the Minnesota Wild in Minnesota on Saturday night.

“He brings a lot,” forward Zach Hyman said of Nylander. “He’s an extremely skilled player. He skates really well. Some of the best edges in the league. He’s just a great guy to be around. He brings a lot to the dressing room. We all know what he can do.”

Nylander scored 61 points both seasons, proving to be an adept scorer and a talented passer.

“He’s got that high skill, he can control the play, shoots the puck really well, sees the ice even better,” said winger Patrick Marleau. “Just a really good offensive player. Last year, he was coming along defensivel­y. His compete level was rising each and every game.”

With Nylander (the eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft), Matthews (the top pick in 2016) and Marner (fourth in 2015), the Maple Leafs assembled their strongest core of young forwards in at least 30 years. The question was always whether they could keep the three game-changing forwards together in a salary-cap era.

While the Leafs have plenty of cap space this season, it’s next season when things will get difficult. Matthews, Marner and Kasperi Kapanen — who has been terrific in Nylander’s absence — all see their entry-level contracts expire July 1. Any or all could also withhold services if they don’t like the Leafs’ offer.

In addition, defenceman Jake Gardiner will be an unrestrict­ed free agent this off-season. Dubas has promised to keep them all together.

“I know people were ready to jam that one down my throat, but we’ll stick with it and that’s our goal,” said Dubas. “We want this group to be together as long as we can possibly keep it together, and we hope that all these guys can be career Leafs, especially this young group of core players that we have.

“It’s obviously a very exciting group and one that’s excited our fans and our city, and that’s our goal — to keep it together as long as it can roll.”


 ?? HANNAH FOSLIEN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Minnesota’s Matt Dumba checks Toronto’s Zach Hyman during the first period of Saturday’s game in St. Paul, Minn.
HANNAH FOSLIEN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Minnesota’s Matt Dumba checks Toronto’s Zach Hyman during the first period of Saturday’s game in St. Paul, Minn.

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