The youth movement in Toronto has Maple Leafs fans salivating at the prospective future of their beloved team. While it’s no secret that the Leafs have been absolutely awful for most of the past decade, year after year, idealists argued that their disappointing seasons would eventually result in a culmination of high draft picks that would turn the franchise around (a la the Chicago Blackhawks around 2006-2008). However, past general managers like Brian Burke traded away all of their high picks and highly-touted prospects for extremely underwhelming returns, leaving the franchise to wallow in mediocrity for the better part of the new millenium.
However, with a new-and-improved management team (led by Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello) and coaching staff (led by Mike Babcock), this is a team that is clearly in transition, shifting its focus solely toward young, highly-touted prospects that hope to one day wear the Maple Leaf.
Perhaps most notably among those prospects is William Nylander. The Canadian-born, Swedish-raised forward went eighth overall to the Maple Leafs at the 2014 NHL Draft. At a very average size – 5-11, 194 lbs. – Nylander was sort of a wild card in that spot, but Toronto felt he had the potential to be a star. Sure enough, the versatile forward (he can play center or right-wing) proved to be special in his first full pro season in 2014-15 – he scored at nearly a point-per-game pace the entire season, in both the SHL (Swedish professional league) and the AHL.
Nylander had scored 20 points in 21 games for his SHL club, MODO Hockey, when he and the Maple Leafs brass made a joint decision to bring him over to North America mid-way through the season. At just 18 years-old, he became one of the youngest AHLers last season; under the CBA, prospects under contract to play in the CHL must turn 20 by January 1 of any season, however since he was an international player, he was allowed to come over and play minor-league hockey at any time.
Though he was expected to make an impact, it is unlikely that anyone foresaw the dominance he soon displayed in the AHL. Nylander scored 32 points (14G, 18A) in 37 games as an 18 year-old rookie for the Marlies – an incredible feat considering the fact that most 20 year-old CHL graduates have trouble transitioning once they become eligible to play in the minors.
Due to the fact that the Leafs are in a state of flux this season, transitioning from a team full of underachieving veterans to a team that – hopefully by the 2016-17 season – has a multitude of young, budding stars as its core, Nylander was kept down in the minors once again to start the season. Seeing as how he’s scored 19 points (8G, 11A) in just 14 games so far for the Marlies this season (and he’s riding a seven-game point-streak, coming off a four-point performance on Saturday against St. John’s), many fans have speculated that perhaps the Leafs will give their young superstar-in-the-making the chance to suit up for the main club this season.
However, it’s not the typical situation you may find with many other teams that are eager to get their young studs up through the pipeline as quickly as possible. The Leafs know they have plenty of time due to the team’s current situation, and they would actually be doing a disservice to Nylander if they were to expedite him to the main club. So instead, they will remain patient and wait for the best possible time, when he is most ready.
I think for William he needs to continue to show game after game, and for long stretches, that he’s mastered this level, and everything that’s going to be expected of him when he goes up to the Leafs as a centerman. Once he gets to that point – and he’s getting there, with a player with William it’s a quicker projection than most– I think it will be deemed that it’s probably time to have a new challenge with the Leafs. When that is, no one really ever knows.
There’s a narrative that we’re into overdeveloping and overbaking the players down here with the Marlies, but we just want them to master what they’re going to be expected to do with the Leafs and the system they’re going to be expected to play with the Leafs for Mike here with the Marlies. We want to move them on as quickly as we can when they’re ready to go.
– Toronto Maple Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas
At 19years-old, had Nylander gone the CHL route, he still would not have been granted eligibility to play in the minors just yet. He would have been required to stay in the CHL until the 2016-17 season, so the mere fact that he is playing for the Marlies right now is a unique treat in itself for the Leafs. They don’t want to spoil it by rushing him to the Leafs right now just for the sake of having him there. Should he stay with the Marlies all season, he will learn much more about the professional game and Mike Babcock’s system with a whole lot less pressure on him.
And most importantly, he can learn to dominate the game at the minor-league level so when it comes time to make the jump to the NHL, he will be ready to do the same there for the Leafs.