SIMMONS SAYS: William Nylander proving his worth as free agency looms for Leafs star

SIMMONS SAYS: William Nylander proving his worth as free agency looms for Leafs star

William Nylander of the Toronto Maple Leafs breaks in for a shot against the Chicago Blackhawks. Getty Images

William Nylander took a pass Monday night on his backhand side, with his stick twisted, while skating full speed, reaching back for a puck behind him and more than one scout watching marvelled at the rather small but delicate play.

“Do you know how many players in the NHL can do that?” a regular Maple Leafs watching scout asked at the end of the period at Scotiabank Arena.

“Maybe five,” came the answer from another scout.

This has always been the thing with Nylander. He can do so much of what others cannot. In his eighth NHL season, he looks stronger, smarter, more engaged than maybe he has ever looked before in the early season. When asked about the reasons the Leafs drafted him years back, then assistant GM Dave Poulin said he was the only player in the draft who “could stickhandle in a phone booth.”

It all means more now because Nylander’s contract expires at the end of this season. It means more because teams are watching him, hoping that he might be available in trade or later in free agency. It means more, as one general manager pointed out, that Nylander looks this motivated “because he’s playing for something more than he’s played for before.” He’s playing for himself and the Maple Leafs and for millions and eventually more millions.

Leafs GM Brad Treliving has been clear about Nylander. He wants to sign him. And why wouldn’t he want to sign his most explosive player? The questions are how and when and for how much? All of this with a backdrop of the constant salary cap concerns.

Nylander has started this season with a purpose rarely shown before. That’s growth and personal agenda meeting at precisely the same time, which should benefit the player and the Maple Leafs this NHL season.

THIS AND THAT

Baseball has the simple answer for Evgeny Kuznetsov’s slow motion shootout goal: A pitch clock. You don’t want slow motion penalty shots in the NHL. They look ridiculous … Aren’t the Philadelphia Phillies everything you want the Blue Jays to be? Full of power, passion, excitement. Even when they blow a lead, like they did Friday night … Under the department of dumb: Flag football will be part of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics of 2028. So will a hybrid version of lacrosse, which isn’t box lacrosse, which we know best, and isn’t field lacrosse which could cure insomnia … Other sports added to the L.A. Olympics, that should all be there permanently, baseball, softball and cricket … Baseball was, in fact, a demonstration sport the last time the Olympics were held in Los Angeles. That was 1984 Games. Among the members of that Team Canada, current Phillies manager Rob Thomson. Among those playing for Team USA: Mark McGwire and Barry Larkin … Department of Dumb, part 2: The NHL is thinking about changing the June draft, having teams stay home in war room rather than show up on the floor of the arena. One of the great charms of the draft, and why it’s more interesting than other drafts, is watching the general managers, who are stars in the hockey world. The GMs in baseball, football, basketball, are mostly anonymous. In hockey, we know them all by name and face … The first clinic of the new hockey season: Watching defending champ Vegas play the Dallas Stars. Might be the two tightest teams in the NHL … What Sheldon Keefe has yet to accomplish: Finding a way for the Leafs to stop playing down to the level of their opponents. Giving up nine goals to Montreal and Chicago, two lottery teams, is inexcusable … Perception is everything. Gary Trent Jr. is only 24 years old and seems like a veteran with the Raptors. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is born one month after Trent and seems like a kid. Auston Matthews, two years older than both, comes across like a veteran completely settled into his role as league superstar … Is it just me, or is this the quietest buildup to a Raptors season in years? Like there are no real expectations so we don’t know what to expect.

HEAR AND THERE

If this was an upcoming Winter Olympic year, we know that one of Connor Hellebuyck, Thatcher Demko or Jake Oettinger would be the starting goaltender for Team USA. We know that one of Andrei Vasilevskiy, Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shesterkin would be in goal for whatever they call the Russian team.

But who would be in goal for Canada? Adin Hill? Tristan Jarry? Carter Hart? Jordan Binnington? It’s hardly inspiring and nothing like predecessors, Carey Price, Roberto Luongo, Martin Brodeur or Patrick Roy … The goaltending glut in Canada will become more prominent when the Hall of Fame class is inducted in Toronto next month. Three goalies from three different countries — Henrik Lundqvist, Tom Barrasso and Mike Vernon will be called to the Hall. Still wish Curtis Joseph was one of the goalies being honoured but he was passed over again … Dave Naylor pointed this out the other day: Winnipeg is the only city in Canada selling out for CFL games and struggling with attendance for NHL games. It’s exactly the opposite in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, Apparently the Jets only have 9,500 season ticket holders … The Argos toning down their season late, sitting out players and occasionally sitting out quarterback Chad Kelly, might cost Kelly the Most Outstanding Player award he deserves in the CFL. I’d vote for him. I know others who are looking at Zach Collaros, Vernon Adams or even Brady Oliveira for the award ahead of Kelly … Canadian Nathan Rourke will be paid considerably more money for not playing with the Jacksonville Jaguars than he was when he was starring for the B.C. Lions last season. He will be paid $44,117 for every game he on the roster for. And he will be paid $12,000 for each week he’s on the practice roster … The Ringer, the website founded by Bill Simmons and purchased by Spotify, recently ranked the Top 25 players in the NBA. The only Raptor on the ‘list” Pascal Siakam at 25. Among those ahead of him: Canadians Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at 10 and Jamal Murray at 15. Amazingly LeBron James was listed as low as 12th and Kawhi Leonard at 13. And not surprisingly ranked No. 1: NBA champion Nikola Jokic … Sometime between now and the Paris Olympics, the brass with Canada Basketball will have to find a way to finesse Murray, Andrew Wiggins and maybe Ben Mathurin on an already stacked Team Canada roster … What if the entire NBA doesn’t want James Harden? What then? … So long Michael Bradley and thanks for everything. For the most part, it was our pleasure.

SCENE AND HEARD

Some early NHL observations, the key word being early: Jon Klingberg can play for the Leafs. Maybe Jake McCabe can play for the Leafs. They just can’t play together … McCabe has replaced Justin Holl as the fans least favourite defencemen. Someone always had to inherit the Larry Murphy place on the Leafs defence … Is it just me, or is Mitch Marner trying to do too much in the early season? Marner’s strengths are his vision, his creativity, his elusive skating. He’s forcing plays early, and that’s not his game … With all the pressure and the all the focus on the Edmonton Oilers, how could they start this poorly? … The only undefeated team in the Eastern Conference, heading into Saturday night, are the never-say-die Boston Bruins … The defending champ Knights haven’t missed a beat, even with Alex Pietrangelo injured. Five and oh is impressive. Giving up eight goals against in five games is even more impressive …. Considering how the season ended it’s hard to care that five Blue Jays players are finalists for Gold Glove Awards. Even harder to care when two of them, Kevin Kiermaier and Matt Chapman, are free agents who will likely be playing elsewhere next season … And I thought George Springer deserved consideration for Gold Glove status in right field. He made so many spectacular plays out there … Will this be Cito Gaston’s year to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Gaston is one of eight on the Contemporary Baseball Era committee for Hall recognition. He needs 12 of 16 votes to be elected and the voters have yet to be announced publicly. The others on the ballot are managers Davey Johnson, Lou Piniella and Jim Leyland, executives Hank Peters and Bill White and umpires Joe West and Ed Montague … If I was voting, I’d immediately eliminate the umpires, probably eliminate Peters and Johnson, and try to figure out who to pick among White, Piniella, Leyland and Gaston. If I only had one vote, it would be between Gaston and Leyland.

AND ANOTHER THING

This should have been a time to be celebrating Kim Ng, the first female general manager in Major League Baseball, after getting the Miami Marlins to the playoffs this season. Instead, there was no party. She walked out on the Marlins refusing to accept that ownership was hiring someone over here to run baseball operations … Training camp begins soon for the Women’s Professional Hockey League. Wouldn’t it be nice if the franchises had names and colours and jerseys by now? … Yes, that is former Jays third baseman Dave McKay coaching third base for the Arizona Diamondbacks … If a shortstop boots a ball, an error is scored and the pitcher gets no penalty on his statistical record. If a quarterback throws an interception that tips off the hands of a receiver who should have made the catch, the interception counts on the quarterback’s record. Not saying one is right and the other is wrong, just the difference in the games … Devon Travis’ younger brother Jordan is a long-shot Heisman Trophy candidate. He’s the quarterback at Florida State. On the all-time list of nicest Blue Jays players, Travis would be Top 5 … I have come to the conclusion that the Buffalo Bills cannot win a Super Bowl with Sean McDermott coaching, which probably means they will win … Pound for pound, the worst head coach in the NFL, year after year, is Los Angeles Chargers boss Brandon Staley … Owner Mark Davis can’t win much of anything in the NFL with his Raiders but he’s won back-to-back WNBA titles with his Las Vegas Aces … Born this date: Whitey Ford, Pedro Morales and Olympic medal winner Bad News Brown … Happy birthday to Lou Lamoriello (81), George Bell (64), Jerry Garvin (68), Butch Goring (74), Willis McGahee (42), Gabe Gross (44), Kara Lang (37), Ron Tugnutt (56), Bill Berg (56) and Zack Grienke (40) … And hey, whatever became of Dwayne Roloson?

CANADA’S LONG LIST OF GREAT FEMALE ATHLETES

The list is long and impressive, from Brooke Henderson to Penny Oleksiak, to the one-time wonder Bianca Andreescu to the multi-sport champion Clara Hughes. From the electric and powerful Catriona LeMay Doan to Nancy Greene and going way back to Barbara Ann Scott and Babe Zaharias. There were the partner, Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle dominating at the Olympics and in between that the hockey players, Angela James passing the baton to Hayley Wickenheiser to Marie-Philip Poulin.

The list of the greatest Canadian female athletes we’ve ever known has to include Kia Nurse and Stacey Dales and Henderson and Sandra Post and Beckie Scott.

And Christine Sinclair, quiet, happy to be out of the spotlight, incredibly efficient might be the greatest of all-time. She’s the standard to which all others need to compare. She wasn’t just the best in Canada. She was the best in the world. She changed Canadian soccer. She took us to the top of the mountain in a sport we once never believed in. She took on the Americans, head to head, when they were the dominant force in women’s soccer, and she was Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali all at once, relentless and intimidating and incredibly compelling.

This is the end for Sinclair as national soccer talent. She has announced her retirement. And always with retirement there has to be talk of legacy. And this one is easy. She’s The Greatest. It’s not like the Olympics where one race and one day change your life. It’s not like women’s hockey, where there are two great countries and nobody else in the field. It’s not like, really, what anyone in women’s sport has done in Canada and in her case across the world.

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