William Nylander practices in full, finally speaks about mysterious absence

TORONTO — William Nylander confidently pushed his way through the largest crowd of reporters that have been at a Toronto Maple Leafs practice this season to take the same place he’s been throughout the entire series against the Boston Bruins, despite not having played a minute: At the centre of attention.

The Leafs star winger has been kept out of the playoff lineup with an ailment the team and Nylander – speaking for the first time all series – have declined to identify. This has led to constant speculation over Nylander’s health since the beginning of the series.

Nylander has long marched to the beat of his own drummer. Even with heightened scrutiny regarding his absence, Nylander remained tight-lipped following his first full practice since the start of the first-round series.

“Look, that’s just personal,” Nylander said about what has kept him out of the series. “So I’m not going to get into that.”

The more pressing question right now for Nylander and the Leafs: Will he make his series debut in Game 4?

“I don’t know. We’ll see,” Nylander said.

“He looked great to me on the ice,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “In terms of his status, we’ll have to determine that tomorrow.”

The Athletic’s Chris Johnston previously reported that Nylander woke up the day after the Leafs’ loss in game 82 of the regular season with an issue that needed attention and continued to feel “pretty stiff.” Sportsnet later reported that Nylander was suffering from migraines.

Nylander had walked through the Bruins practice facility for the Leafs practice ahead of Game 1 wearing sunglasses indoors.

“It is what it is,” Nylander said of the stress surrounding not playing. “There’s nothing to really to really stress about. You can’t really force yourself back into the game.”

Nylander has been inching toward a return. He skated in the Leafs full morning skate ahead of Game 3, taking part in line rushes but then not taking part in power play drills. Nylander stayed late after morning skate with another forward scratch, Noah Gregor.

Still, Friday presented plenty of reasons for optimism for Nylander. He was one of the first Leafs on the ice just after 11:30 for a noon practice, hitting the ice with the same affable grin he often displays. Friday’s practice was the first in this series that which Nylander was a full participant in. He skated on a line with Pontus Holmberg and Calle Jarnkrok and also took part in power play drills.

“We had a good connection in practice. So hopefully we can build off of that and hopefully come in tomorrow,” Nylander said.

Nylander not only moved well throughout practice but had the kind of in-depth discussions during breaks in practice – likely regarding tactical plans – that he would have throughout the regular season. Nylander even stayed late after drills had concluded to practice one-timers with Leafs assistant coach Guy Boucher.

Finally, once practice concluded, Nylander did as he always does, circling through his stretching teammates with the puck.

And when he did, a swift draft hit the Ford Performance Centre ice as the city of Toronto collectively exhaled: Nylander looked as ready as he’s ever been to return, possibly for Game 4.

“You’ve been through the entire season and to miss these first games in playoffs has obviously been tough. This is the time you want to play,” Nylander said. “Hopefully I’m back soon.”

The only time Nylander’s upbeat attitude disappeared through his media availability was when he was asked what the challenges could be for him returning to the ice.

“Nothing,” Nylander said declaratively. “I felt good. I’ve been skating for basically four or five days.”

Nylander’s return would undoubtedly be welcomed by the Leafs. He remains third among all Leafs in playoff scoring since 2016-17, despite missing the last three playoff games. Nylander was the team’s leading scorer in the 2021 playoffs with eight points through seven games. Against the Bruins, the Leafs have not only struggled to create sustained offence (their 2.00 goals per game sits last among the 16 postseason teams) but they have also struggled to generate momentum with possession of the puck through the neutral zone against a pesky, defensive Bruins side.



Maple Leafs being haunted by a familiar playoff problem: Not enough goals

Getting Nylander, arguably their best puck-carrying forward, back for Game 4 could be a massive boost for the Leafs.

And it would likely be a boost for Nylander’s own sanity, too. Nylander admitted the time spent off the ice has been difficult to manage.

“I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” Nylander said. “I don’t like it. That first game was crazy. We had so many chances in the first two minutes. My heart was just…it was crazy.”

It’s safe to assume Leafs fans have seen their own heart rate rise and fall with every daily update surrounding Nylander through this series. Yet considering everything Nylander did through Friday’s practice, these daily updates might finally be coming to a close.

The Leafs need Nylander back in their lineup. And that’s where Nylander himself would rather be, too.

(Photo: Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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