Toronto Maple Leafs: Will Babcock’s tough love approach work with Nylander?

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 20: William Nylander
COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 20: William Nylander /

Mike Babcock continues to challenge William Nylander to grow his game, something the Toronto Maple Leafs need him to do.

As coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock has made it known he puts more value on a player’s body work as opposed to individual moments. William Nylander is a perfect example of this.

After the Leafs’ overtime loss to the Florida Panthers, Babcock was asked about the play the 21-year-old made on the game-tying goal and made sure to bring up the word “compete”.

"“The biggest thing, all the time, is competitiveness,” Babcock said to reporters. “So, when he does what he did last night on the one play, tracks the guy from behind, lifts his stick and goes to the net hard, then his skill comes out. When he doesn’t do that his skill doesn’t come out. That’s the biggest challenge for him each and every night.”"

It might sound harsh, but that has been the head coach’s approach with his young core group of players. The best example of a player who has taken that message to heart is Auston Matthews  and it seems to have paid off so far for Toronto.

This is not like the situation Babcock had with the Detroit Red Wings, when they won the Stanley Cup in 2008. The core of Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall and Jiri Hudler were all over the age of 24.

This Maple Leafs’ core is much younger, so that has certainly changed the coach’s approach on the amount of tough love he dishes out and how much he pushes his players.

As TSN’s Mark Masters writes, Babcock is always preaching competitiveness both on and off the ice, especially with Nylander.

"“Don’t get me wrong, we’re in the National Hockey League, to separate yourself in competitiveness, everyone’s ultra-competitive, right? So, then to get to the next level of that, it’s hard, but that’s what separates the great, great players from the rest of us. I don’t know where it’s going for him. He’s a good guy, he’s a pro, he wants to be good and I think he’s cognizant of these things. We talk about it regularly,” said Babcock about his approach with Nylander."

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Sometimes talented players can go stretches without making their presence known, but can immediately flip a switch and take over a game. Nylander is that type of player; he has shown that he is capable of being an offensive force and can be responsible defensively.

Every time the puck is on Nylander’s stick, Leafs’ fans can usually expect him to make something happen. Without the puck, it seems like he is waiting for the right moment to strike.

Jonas Siegel of The Athletic proposes that what makes Nylander such an interesting player for Toronto is the mystery that surrounds him.

"“He doesn’t want to let everybody know that he wants to be the best. He doesn’t shout it in the gym,” said teammate Kaperi Kapanen to Siegel after the overtime loss to Florida. “But I think the most important thing is when nobody’s watching he’s working hard and he’s trying to get better every day.”"

Maybe that is something Babcock has learned to accept with Nylander, which might be tough for him to grasp. Sometimes the coach has to hold players to a higher standard than what others might. Some players respond to this, but others don’t.

It happened earlier this season when Mitch Marner was demoted to the fourth line and now he is one of the most lethal players on the Leafs. Babcock has also done the same with Nylander and it seemed like the goal was to show that nothing is handed to you in the NHL.

His progress has not gone unnoticed, as Nazem Kadri told Masters that he has seen progress in the young Swede’s game.

"“He’s much more responsible now,” Kadri observed. “I feel like his two-way game has come a long way. He works hard to get himself into open areas to receive the puck and that translates into good things offensively and his offensive talent speaks for itself."

The Toronto Maple Leafs will hope that the offence continues to show for Nylander, with Matthews sidelined. Maybe the approach Babcock is taking with him is to challenge him to grow his game and unlock his full potential.

Next: Leafs need Nikita Zaitsev to return to last season’s form

What do you think about Babcock’s approach with Nylander and will it lead to more success for the Toronto Maple Leafs? Let us know in the comments.