There were smiles abound on the first day of Maple Leafs training camp, the kind of smiles you find on the first day of school. Everything seems new and fresh and exciting and optimistic and almost giggly until you mention the name William Nylander.

Then there is pause, followed by another pause and a thought and just a little bit of hope. And more than a little bit of frustration. And also, complete uncertainty.

The Stanley Cup favourite Leafs — the online bookies say that, I don’t — take to the ice in Niagara Falls on Friday morning for their first skates of camp and there will be Auston Matthews, the draft pick prize of all Leafs prizes, centring a line of Tyler Ennis and Patrick Marleau. That’s not exactly exciting or optimistic. Matthews has to get ready to play for real in October and Marleau has to get ready to attempt to keep up with Matthews and be a central figure in a new situation and Nylander, Mike Babcock’s chosen right winger for the line, remains in Sweden, at philosophical ends with the Leafs with two fundamental differences.

He wants more money than the Leafs are willing to pay and he wants more term. The Leafs, from what I’m told, would prefer to do a bridge contract on Nylander, the way Montreal did once upon a time with star defenceman P.K. Subban. You pay less to start and, if the player turns out the way Nylander expects himself to turn out — and the Leafs, truly, expect him to emerge as well — then betting on himself pays off in the end, the way it has paid off financially for Subban.

But there is another factor that has nothing to do with Nylander or the Leafs. It’s about the expectation that the NHL will be facing another lockout in 2020. Players have been signing large contracts in recent years with more annual bonus clauses in their deals than actual salary. It’s basically lottery protection: A bridge deal won’t necessarily afford Nylander the kind of lockout protection players today are looking for, which is among the reasons the Nylander camp is looking long term rather than playing the short game.

The Leafs need Nylander in camp, not just to complete their roster but to provide Matthews with a winger of similar skill levels. And to make certain the Leafs have two explosive forward lines — one with John Tavares and Mitch Marner, one with Matthews and Nylander.

There are two distinct ways of viewing Nylander’s first two full seasons with the Leafs: One is to say that he and Matthews fit well together, had first line chemistry and, in the playoff series against Washington in 2017, they were the Leafs’ best two forwards. That, along with two 60-point seasons for Nylander, is the sell from one side of the equation.

The other side is more dubious. Nylander, playing with Matthews, one of the great players in the NHL, has scored only 42 goals in two seasons playing on the first line. Worse than that, in 13 playoff games against Washington and Boston, he has scored only twice. Those aren’t the statistics of a $7- or $8-million player, maybe not the stats of a $6-million player.

Nik Ehlers of Winnipeg, born the same year as Nylander, signed with the Jets for seven years and $42 million. So far, he’s more accomplished than Nylander.

So is Boston’s David Pastrnak, who went crazy scoring against Nylander’s line in the playoffs, and has signed for just under $42 million over six years.

Long term, Nylander should come in just under Ehlers and Pastrnak in terms of years and money. Short term, it gets complicated, and if the Leafs stick to their guns on a bridge contract, this holdout could be longer and more painful than anyone wants it to be.

For his part, Nylander was missing from camp as players went through their medicals, interviews and photos on Thursday. The ice stuff, for real, begins Friday. The pre-season games come quickly with games on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. It’s all happening fast with no update from the Leafs on any pending deal.

A call placed to Nylander’s agent, Lewis Gross, on Thursday was not returned.

If Nylander was close to a deal, he would at least be in the vicinity, in the Toronto area, and ready to go if a contract is agreed upon.

But he’s at home in Sweden, steadfast as the negotiations are being conducted by agent Gross, and no one is expecting this to end quickly.

Ever the coach, Mike Babcock, said it’s a great opportunity for Ennis, a three-time 20-goal scorer who has lost his way to get another opportunity. But when a question was asked of Babcock about Matthews getting more assists than goals for the first time, he didn’t reference Ennis. He referenced how many times Nylander would shoot the puck top corner.

Nylander can do that. He has a monster shot. He has major-league hands and big- league skills. When he’s on, which isn’t often enough, he can change games. The Leafs need him back for their team, for Matthews, for all the pieces to fit together on this contender.

The history of the holdout isn’t one of celebration in hockey. Nylander needs to sign … and soon. The better for him, the better for the hockey club, the more complete it will feel for this contender facing somewhat similar negotiations upcoming with Matthews and Marner. This is the first one. It isn’t going well for anyone but Tyler Ennis.

ssimmons@postmedia.com

https://torontosun.com/sports/hockey/nhl/toronto-maple-leafs/simmons-absence-of-nylander-mars-happy-first-day-of-leafs-camp

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