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TRAIKOS: Is this the year when Maple Leafs’ William Nylander finally breaks out and becomes a star?

William Nylander is off to a good start with the Leafs this season. But the question is: Can he keep it up? GETTY IMAGES

Three years later, a contract that an NHL executive once criticized as being so bad that it set up Toronto “for failure” and Forbes magazine predicted would “blow up in the Leafs’ faces” is not looking like the end of the world anymore.

It’s funny how that works.

Time not only heals all wounds, it also puts things into perspective.

When William Nylander sat out for the first two months of the 2018-19 season while negotiating a six-year deal worth $45 million — “OMG, that’s David Pastrnak type money!!!” cap-conscious fans tweeted — the forward was considered highly overpaid.

But that was before Montreal re-signed Nick Suzuki to a cap hit of $7.875 million and Ottawa gave in to Brady Tkachuk’s demands of a seven-year contract worth $8.2 million annually.

Compared to those players, Nylander’s deal looks like a steal. Certainly, his $6.9-million cap hit is a lot more reasonable than the $11 million Toronto is paying John Tavares or the $10.9 million that Mitch Marner is earning.

The only question is whether Nylander, who has yet to enjoy a true breakout season, can outperform either of those players this year. With two goals and one assist in his first two games of the season, the 25-year-old is off to a great start in that department.

But with Nylander, it’s all about consistency — or a lack thereof.

The year that he signed his contract, he rewarded the Leafs with just seven goals and 27 points in 54 games. The following year, he tied for 15th in the league in scoring with 31 goals in 68 games. But then he flatlined in 2020-21, scoring 17 goals — just two more than Zach Hyman — and ranking outside the top 60 in points.

In other words, no one really knows what to expect out of the enigmatic winger these remaining 80 games.

Will Nylander, who currently has as many goals as Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, be able to remain in the Rocket Richard Trophy race? Can he become a 40- or a 50-goal scorer and a point-per-game player? Can he put up Pastrnak-like numbers?

And, for a team that has put all of its financial eggs in one basket, can he be more than just the fourth-most-important member of Toronto’s $40-million core?

Maple Leafs winger William Nylander celebrates his third-period goal against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on Thursday night. The Leafs are counting on him more than ever to provide offence. GETTY IMAGES
Maple Leafs winger William Nylander celebrates his third-period goal against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on Thursday night. The Leafs are counting on him more than ever to provide offence. GETTY IMAGES

This has always been the question — and the source of frustration with a player as talented as Nylander. As the eighth-overall pick in the 2014 NHL entry draft, he was the first piece in Toronto’s rebuild and its philosophical shift to valuing speed and skill over size and strength. But since then, he’s fallen a few rungs down the depth chart for the same reasons he initially fell to the Leafs in the draft.

“Misunderstood,” is how team president Brendan Shanahan described Nylander in the Amazon docuseries All or Nothing. But there’s more to it than that.

The reason why Nylander didn’t get the same money as Marner or Auston Matthews wasn’t because he isn’t as skilled as his teammates. It was because his work ethic doesn’t always match that talent level. Nylander doesn’t always show up. When he does, he sometimes cuts corners. As talented as he is, he has yet to squeeze every single ounce of that talent out of his body and put all of the pieces together.

It’s why he ended up as a frequent guest in Mike Babcock’s doghouse. And it’s why, whenever this team struggles, it’s usually Nylander’s name at the top of the trade list.

Good thing the Leafs didn’t pull the trigger. After all, they need him now more than ever.

Call him “misunderstood,” if you want. But with Matthews on the shelf and Hyman no longer on the team, the Leafs understand how important Nylander is to their long-term success this season. This isn’t as deep a roster as it once was a year or two ago. It’s not enough for Nylander to be a secondary scoring option, as he was in 2018-19, when seven other Leafs had 20 or more goals.

With Hyman gone and Matthews and Ilya Mikheyev on the shelf nursing injuries, there are fewer offensive options, putting even more pressure on Nylander to contribute. Based on how well he has played in the first two games — and how well he played during last year’s playoffs, where he was Toronto’s best player with five goals and eight points in a first-round loss to Montreal — he finally seems more than ready for the challenge.

Nylander had a goal in the season-opening win against the Canadiens, along with four shots and four takeaways. One night later, he scored a goal and picked up an assist in a comeback attempt that fell short to the Senators.

Of course, the stat you want to pay attention to when talking about Nylander is ice time. He’s always been a less-is-more kind of player. His career average is around 16-and-a-half minutes. Against the Senators, where he was bumped up to a line with Tavares and Marner, he logged nearly 23 minutes.

That’s a sign of respect from the coaching staff. It tells you that Nylander is doing more to help — than hurt — the team these days. That he can be trusted. That he can be leaned on for more than just the occasional goal.

Now comes the challenge: Doing it for another 80 games. If so, then he could be looking at an even bigger payday when his contract comes up three years from now.

mtraikos@postmedia.com

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