There was a time when Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe had to light a fire under William Nylander to get the winger engaged.
OK, several times. That’s not the case now, as Nylander has become a consistent spark.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” Keefe said. “He’s maturing. Over time, you get sick of having the coach in your ear all the time and you want to get that sorted out yourself before the coach has to come in and get in there (again).
“I also think our players internally are pushing each other, those top guys. Willie has potential to be in that top tier. Auston (Matthews) and Mitch (Marner) have really established themselves in that exclusive top tier in the league.
“Willie should be right there hanging with those guys. He’s pushing himself, and they’re all pushing one another, which is how that group gets to even greater heights.”
And, of course, the bigger result for the Leafs has been the accumulation of wins and points.
At 11-0-3 in their past 14 games, the Leafs are two games shy of the club record for the longest streak without a loss in regulation. The 2002-03 Leafs, led by Mats Sundin and Ed Belfour, went on a 16-game point run that included 14 wins, a tie and an overtime loss.
Nylander has contributed throughout, recording at least one point in all but six of the Leafs’ first 29 games, highlighted by a career-high five points in Toronto’s 5-4 overtime win against the Calgary Flames on Saturday.
Questions that came every so often about Nylander’s effort are no longer being asked. He is on pace for 48 goals and 93 points. Each would be a career high.
“He’s just a stud,” Leafs goalie Matt Murray said. “He’s incredibly gifted. He works hard. He seems to win a ton of 50/50 battles.
“That goes to his strength and his athleticism and his dedication to win those battles. He gets a lot of second pucks, a lot of second chances. (Saturday) he carries our team and he’s basically the reason we get two points. Heck of a player.”
In extending his franchise-record point streak to 22 games with an assist and the overtime winner versus the Flames, Marner further moved into select company in the history of the National Hockey League. Marner became just the 14th different player to record a 22-game run.
Not to take anything away from Marner, but Wayne Gretzky, who holds the NHL record with a 51-game point streak, had seven separate streaks of at least 23 games during his career.
Will Marner keep his streak going at home on Tuesday night? We would bet yes.
Next up for the Leafs at Scotiabank Arena are the Anaheim Ducks, a pitiful team that sits in last place in the NHL with a record of 7-18-3. Against the Ducks, who play in Ottawa on Monday night against the Senators, Marner has 10 points (two goals and eight assists) in 11 games in his career.
When Marner assisted on a Nylander goal in the first period on Saturday, the crowd at Scotiabank Arena rose as the goal was being announced and gave Marner a standing ovation.
The significance of that collective gesture wasn’t lost on Keefe.
“Loved it,” Keefe said. “Love how dialled in our fans are.
“I looked up (as the cheering increased), I didn’t know what happened. You quickly learn that they’re attuned to what’s happening. It’s so well-deserved for Mitch.
“This guy has really been driving the bus for us. For him to get their reaction and know that the people are behind him, I think it’s terrific.”
Joey Anderson worked his way into Keefe’s good books in exactly 10 minutes of ice time on Saturday.
With Pierre Engvall having served his one-game suspension, expect him to be back in the lineup against Anaheim. But don’t expect Anderson, who made his Leafs season debut against the Flames, to come out.
Anderson hustled throughout the evening, drawing a couple of penalties and throwing four hits. In a game that had its back-and-forth moments, Anderson was on the ice for just one shot against at five-on-five.
“Especially in the back half of the game, he really started to do some good things,” Keefe said. “I was really encouraged. He made good plays on the breakout, on the wall.
“He’s going to get an opportunity to keep going with us. With our situation and our injuries and how he has played, it’s time for us to give him a little runway here to see what he can do.”
It’s probable that Wayne Simmonds will sit on Tuesday as Engvall returns. Simmonds has played in just seven games this season and has not played in consecutive games since Oct. 22-24.
Against Calgary, Simmonds had a Leafs-high six hits in less than seven minutes of ice time, but took two minor penalties.
Michael Bunting leads the NHL in penalties drawn during five-on-five play with 20, but some of the shine comes off considering the number of minors Bunting has taken. He’s at 14 at five-on-five, the most among Leafs and third most in the NHL before games on Sunday. Most importantly, Bunting will take a career-high eight-game point streak into Tuesday … The Leafs had Sunday off and will return to practice on Monday at the Ford Performance Centre.