In the world of “professional sports,” it’s easy to misconstrue a player’s commitment to their team. The most recent example might be William Nylander of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Specifically, after Auston Matthews signed his contract extension, Nylander did not respond by signing his own.

Many fans and hockey analysts suggest or at least hint that it means that Nylander’s attitude is cavalier. He doesn’t care enough about his team. But is that true? In this post, I want to make a case that Nylander’s issue might not be that he cares too little but that he cares too much.

He just might care about the “wrong” things, at least from a Maple Leafs’ organizational perspective.

Related: Maple Leafs 2023-24 Roster: Building a Balanced Lineup

There Could Be More to the Story of Nylander and the Maple Leafs

As I noted, the fact that the contract negotiations between Nylander and the Maple Leafs about his extension continue. In the face of these, Nylander seems pretty darn laid-back in his approach. But, is that indifference? While I might be wrong, I think there could be more to the story.

Nylander’s response to the team’s chasing him to sign an extension might suggest a different perspective. There is external pressure mounting for him to prioritize the team’s needs – to be a good soldier. However, his actions might indicate that Nylander might have a more profound concern for his personal connections and his relationships with his teammates and (perhaps) not as deep as his loyalty to the organization.

The Recent Sandin Interview Revealed Lots About Nylander

Last week in an interview with Rasmus Sandin, it was revealed that he was Nylander’s closest friend on the team. Now, he’s a former teammate, who was moved to the Washington Capitals at the trade deadline last season by former general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas. Might this interview have shed light on the deep relationships among players on the team?

These players, who go to battle on the ice together game after game, also build a camaraderie that transcends other relationships. These guys become family. They are human that way, and their relationships highlight the human side of “professional” athletes.

But Professional Sports Demands Are Difficult

Sandin’s abrupt and surprising (to him at least) trade raises questions about how Nylander perceives the fragile nature of personal bonds within the team. Being a professional means that you cannot control everything (or really very little) about where you play hockey or with whom you play. Players can be traded at the will of the organization, and they are.

In Sandin’s case, he and Nylander had been friends for eight or so years. They hung out together and cared a lot about each other. Now Nylander is asked to cement his loyalty to the very organization who traded away his best friend (and forget that they did so)? I think that it might not be that easy or desirable on Nylander’s part.

In fact, in one telling piece, a teammate told Sandin (who had just heard about the trade) not to “cry” because the cameras were on him. Do you think he wanted to leave? Do you think Nylander wanted it?

Related: Three Reasons Why the Maple Leafs Love Calle Jarnkrok

Not Signing Quickly Doesn’t Mean Nylander Doesn’t Care About the Maple Leafs

This situation where loyalty to friends becomes as important as loyalty to the team challenges the conventional narrative of loyalty in professional sports. Players like Nylander – and by that I mean elite players who are greatly desired by their teams – are more than just assets to be moved at the whim of management. They’re individuals with emotions and attachments, struggling to balance personal connections with the demands of their teams.

Rasmus Sandin, formerly of the Maple Leafs

I wonder if Nylander’s reluctance to rush into a contract extension might stem from his growing awareness of this balance and who might be in control. He has learned that he can’t control Sandin’s destination, but he’s now in a place where he can exert some control over his own situation. And, why wouldn’t he do so?

Is Nylander Beginning to Re-prioritize His Loyalties?

I believe there’s a chance that the problem is not that Nylander cares too little; rather, he cares too much. He’s navigating the transition into a “professional” hockey player, learning to let go of things beyond his control. He was clear that his agent and the organization would work out a contract, even in the face of rumours that he was likely to be traded if he didn’t knuckle under.

For me, the Sandin interview helped bring a potential new understanding to Nylander’s perspective. This perspective required me to see beyond team expectations and recognize the intricate dynamics that shape players’ decisions. I’m still learning about what makes players tick.

I have no reason to vilify the team or sympathize with the players. Instead, I do want to better understand why humans make the decisions they make. I am a teacher, after all. To do so, I am trying to view their behaviours through a more logical lens.

That means I have to acknowledge the human aspect that often goes unnoticed in the world of professional sports.

Related: What If You Were The Maple Leafs GM or Head Coach?

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