The question isn’t really about the money being paid to William Nylander — the question is about Nylander himself.
Who is he? What is he? And what will he be for the next eight years as a member of the Maple Leafs?
And the truth is, we don’t know. Because he never has played this kind of exceptional hockey before. Because he never has been this trusted by coach Sheldon Keefe. Because at no time really in the past seven seasons has he been in the conversation for best player on the Leafs.
This year, he is right there with Auston Matthews. This year, he is right there with almost all the best forwards in the National Hockey League. This year …
He is currently fifth in the NHL in scoring, 11th in goals scored, seventh in assists.
Those are numbers — like his $11.5-million US salary that kicks in next season — that he never has been about before.
Last year, he was 20th in points scored, 14th in goals scored, 40th in assists.
That was a step up from 33rd in points, 30th in goals, 40th in assists the previous campaign. And the year before that, he was 64th points, 59th in goals, 72nd in assists.
Nylander is either trending in the right direction — with really not much higher to go — or he is having the season of his life and the Leafs are paying for it now.
Matthews has been a relatively straight line while growing into himself with the Leafs. Mitch Marner, prior to this year, has been close to a straight line in his previous seven seasons. Even captain John Tavares has been just under point-a-game during his time in Toronto.
But in goals, Nylander has gone from 59th to 30th to 14th to 11th in the NHL in four seasons. In points, he has gone from 64th to 33rd to 20th to fifth over that same period of time. His assist numbers have grown from 72nd to 40th two seasons in a row and now seventh.
The $11.5 million will be value money with an apparently raising salary cap, if this is how Nylander will produce, how he will play for most of the next several seasons. At his best, he can now change games, he can drive a line, he can be a rare forward difference-maker. At his best …
But as recently as last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs, coach Keefe played Nylander just about 14 minutes in a playoff game against the Tampa Bay Lightning because he didn’t like his game. That’s not the way you employ one of the league’s highest-paid players. That was then.
This season, the minutes have changed for Nylander. Last season, he played 36 games with less than 18 minutes of ice time: This season he has seven.
Is there another step for Nylander to take — or is the best he will ever be?
The Leafs, who don’t understand the concept of underpaying anything resembling a star, are overpaying Nylander in the first year or two of his contract.
That’s where this gets interesting: If Nylander can be elite for, say, five of the eight years on his deal and the salary cap continues to rise as it should, then this will be a very sound document for the Leafs.
But for the first year, it’s a hold-your-breath kind of arrangement because the $40 million being paid to Nylander, Matthews, Marner and Tavares jumps to $46 million next year. But the year after that, when Tavares’ contract is up and his $11-million deal expires, the Leafs could choose to re-sign him at maybe half the money that he is being paid now for his 17th or 18th NHL seasons.
That takes the price for Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Tavares — assuming Tavares would be involved with a paycut — closer to $40 million with the cap price raising, year after year.
That’s the best of all contractual scenarios as the Leafs already have boxed themselves in long-term, so financially tied to their top players.
Nylander is about to be paid $11.5 million a year. Matthews is about to be paid more than $13 million a year. Marner is a year away from a new deal.
It should be pointed out that no player making as much as Marner or more than him has ever won a Stanley Cup.
The Leafs continue on this Core Four, large-dollar path, never once changing course and never once assuming their strategy for victory is flawed.
Flawed or not, it’s where they are, it’s who they are — and it’s their only chance to succeed.
This being early January, the Winnipeg Jets have the best record in hockey. The Leafs couldn’t be more different than them as the Jets have no player currently being paid more than $8 million a season.
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Vegas is the defending Stanley Cup champion. Its highest paid player earns $10 million a year.
The Leafs have three players at more than $10.9 million. Next season they will have four of them.
Why the Leafs chose to pay Nylander more than the more-accomplished wingers such as Nikita Kucherov, David Pastrnak or Mikko Rantanen is something only they can explain.
The money, though, will be well-spent if Nylander plays the way he has played in this special season.
If he reverts to his disinterest or inconsistency of earlier years, let the screaming begin. And there will be lots of it.
This is all on William Nylander now. His time to shine. His time to grow. His time to be worth — gulp — $92 million.