Neither the win or the negotiation was pretty, but the important part is that the Toronto Maple Leafs left Minnesota on Saturday night with two points and William Nylander under contract.

Your game in ten:

1.  First, on the William Nylander contract: Kyle Dubas’ body language and tone of voice conveyed it pretty clearly. Lewis Gross and Dubas went 12 rounds in this fight, it wasn’t exactly a clear “win” for the Leafs in the end as far as securing their own version of the Forsberg or Ehlers contracts, and it came way closer to total disaster than it should’ve, by Dubas’ own admission.

But it’s a fair deal and the Leafs avoided the two must-not-dos: Bridging themselves into a corner on a two-to-four-year deal, or allowing the AAV to balloon up over $7 million in the most crucial years of a long-term contract.

Nylander’s camp showed an impressive level of resolve/stubbornness and got some big wins here. He sold just one of his UFA years, basically got his $7 million per, and the Leafs made him whole for this season with his year-one base salary plus signing bonus cash. That was a nice win for them and a concession from the Leafs; keeping the year-one money down with less guaranteed bonus money up front would’ve shaved some off of the prorated AAV in the out years. Strictly financially speaking, Nylander only gained ground and didn’t really lose anything through this process.

2.  An interesting note about Dubas’ comments today: When asked if this is going to make him rethink the timeline on the contracts, he said “Sure.”

“When you have time, use it,” has been the Lou-ism that Dubas has been fond of, but there is no doubt it’s not the wise approach with young star talent if you can avoid it. The problem is both sides of the negotiation know this. It’s going to be fascinating to watch; the word has been that Marner’s party wants to wait, and looking at his point projections right now, why wouldn’t you? Walking into the summer knowing Nylander got $7 million with a potential 90+ point season to Marner’s name, Darren Ferris has to be seeing dollar signs.

(On the Matthews front, I’m not really going to get into it. While it’s not irrelevant in the overall discussion about the team’s salary structure/hierarchy, superstar generational centers / top-five players are pretty much their own thing unto themselves).

Hopefully Dubas and co. learned some things here to take forward. Discounts do not constitute a real plan and Brendan Shanahan likely did no one any favours with his comments in October.

In the meantime, let’s stop talking contracts and cap projections for a while and just enjoy the rest of the season finally. It could be a really special one in Leafland.

3.  On the game tonight, Mike Babcock’s eyes were firmly on the ball after the win: Playoff hockey.

On nights like this one, he wants to see the Leafs take care of the puck through the neutral zone, take what’s given to them, put it in deep, work to get it back, and sustain zone time with heavy o-zone shifts. There is work to do still as far as getting this team to do that on a consistent enough basis to win 16 games in the Spring.

Winning games on scoring talent, special teams and goaltending is great when you need it over the 82-game slog (sign of a great team), but we all know the penalties dry up in the playoffs and the neutral zones look a lot like tonights.

4.  It was clear what Babcock was doing by going back to the Marleau – Matthews – Kapanen line in anticipation of Nylander’s return, but the results were predictable for all the reasons we’ve been discussing in this space. The line doesn’t have a natural puck carrier and it’s a ‘jerky’-feeling three-man unit overall.

A game like this was a perfect demonstration of how important Nylander’s return is on account of the fact that he is a trap antidote. The Leafs struggled to get through the neutral zone cleanly for large chunks of the game. The Wild contained their speed about as well as any opponent has this season. Nylander’s ability to gather speed from behind the puck from low in the d-zone, slice through crowded neutral ice, and set the table offensively will show its value in games like this.

5.  The difficult question now on the point of the Nylander return is who comes out on the wing: Tyler Ennis or Josh Leivo. It’s made more difficult by the fact that both have played better and better as this decision has come closer and closer.

With his goal tonight against his former team, Ennis now has six points in his last 12 games while playing a little under 11 minutes per night on the fourth line. I’d say having both Johnsson and Ennis creates a bit of a redundancy on the left wing and that may well be the case at some point, but if they’re both effective, they’re both effective, and it’s hard to argue with both staying in the lineup at least for the time being.

Leivo is a bigger body who is good along the wall and has also found a way to positively affect the game in limited minutes, including drawing the initial call prior to the Auston Matthews power play goal tonight. In general, he’s just done all the right things as far as the improved game-to-game, shift-to-shift impact and the heightened consistency to his effort level. The only reason he likely loses out is handedness on a roster that’s much deeper down the right side (Marner – Nylander – Kapanen – Brown is as good as it gets in the league on the RW).

It’s not fair to Leivo (again), but championship-calibre teams need to create these “problems” for themselves. Good position to be in.

6.  My bet is on:

Marleau – Matthews – Nylander
Hyman – Tavares – Marner
Johnsson – Kadri – Kapanen
Ennis – Lindholm – Brown

Connor Brown also made a case for himself tonight with a change of pace along the wall and slick set up from below the goal line to Kadri for the game-winner, on top of his usual PK work (3/3). There hasn’t been enough of those moments from Brown this season to suggest he shouldn’t be the one joining L4 vs. Kapanen, but you know Babcock hates the prospect of reducing the Brown Cow’s 5v5 minutes. Again, good problems to have. Tons of internal competition.

7.  Mitch Marner, the four-dimensional hockey player:

It’s amazing how he creates space out of nothing with his edgework. There isn’t supposed to be enough room available to create the looks and options he creates here. Constantly opening up the ice for himself with the flexibility in his legs and hips, he is able to create plays that simply aren’t there for normal hockey players.

8.  Speaking of things normal hockey players can’t do, Auston Matthews’ bat down of Marner’s overcooked saucer pass followed by the classic Matthews release on the 1-0 goal would match that description as well, to say the least. Minnesota did a lot of the right things as far as puck pressure in the buildup to that goal and getting sticks in the lane, but how do you stop a power play that has that kind of stuff going on?

9.  Babcock mentioned previously that the idea was to sit Igor Ozhiganov on occasion to adjust him to the NHL schedule, but the other half of it was that he was continuing to evaluate his options with Ozhiganov vs. Holl and Marincin. What’s interesting is that Ozhiganov played through both back-to-backs recently.

The training wheels are still on — he played 12 mins and change in this game — but he was one of the Leafs’ better defensemen as far as moving the puck crisply and cleanly (team-leading 59% CF), and his confidence to pinch in (smartly) and get involved offensively is growing of late. He’s picked up a few points recently and he was in position to potentially bury one tonight on the Ennis deflection goal if the pass went through.

10. Of course, Frederik Andersen needs a point of his own before we wrap up. 40+ saves were needed for the win, and it wasn’t one of those nights when the Leafs could point to the scoring chance count or the prevalence of perimeter shooting. This was a first-star goalie performance; the Leafs just aren’t in a position to win the game late without key saves at 3-3 and all the way through the second half of the game. I’m struggling to remember a game (second of the year versus Ottawa?) that Andersen played legitimately poorly in.


Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Minnesota Wild


Condensed Game