William “Mr. Wonderful” Nylander selected by Mississauga in CHL Import draft

From the colours to the home and away jerseys to the finish in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference standings, the Mississauga Steeleads are doing their best to copy the Toronto Maple Leafs lately. That apparently includes taking their draft picks.

If you’re a fan of general chaos, then I’d suggest paying a little bit more attention to the junior hockey ranks. The on-ice product is known for favouring offensive talent over defensive systems, but the chaos really comes to light off the ice. It may be the only league where a player’s agent will rip a team for selecting the player first overall.

William Nylander, the Leafs 8th overall pick at the recent NHL draft, was selected in the first round of the CHL Import draft by Toronto’s closest junior hockey club. If you’re less than familiar with the process, don’t assume that Nylander will suit up for a team whose tickets are a fraction of the price of the price of admission of the Leafs. In the import draft, most of the times teams will take players they are familiar with and they know they can sign, or take a shot in a million on a highly-regarded player. The Nylander selection is the latter.

Unlike NHL clubs, CHL teams don’t have scouts scouring the continent of Europe and will generally draft and sign players through the recommendation of an agent without too much familiarity on any one player unless he’s heavily-scouted.

But, uh, there are four potential places Nylander could play next season, and junior hockey is the least appealing of the four. While the potential to dominate and acclimatize himself to a pro hockey schedule, as well as the proximity to Toronto, is an appeal for Nylander to play with Mississauga, none of those basic accommodations can’t be met by the Maple Leafs minor affiliate Toronto Marlies.

Gare Joyce, in a thorough column at Sportsnet, points out that Nylander counts as a European player, despite being born in Calgary, and is thus eligible for the AHL next season. Draft selections from the Canadian major junior system must play their age 18 and age 19 seasons in junior where products of the American college or European systems do not.

Leafs brass should do their best to steer Nylander towards playing in the AHL, which sounds like the plan. The transition to North American couldn’t be too difficult for Nylander, and he’ll also be able to play at the World Junior tournament for Sweden this December. Sweden, playing out of Group B, gets to play its Round Robin games at the Air Canada Centre, by the by, and the only way I see Nylander missing those is if he’s in the NHL or injured.

If you saw the headline “Steelheads draft Nylander” I hope your initial instinct wasn’t to think Willy would play in Mississauga. Not that this column contains too much new information, but it’s a news bit of an off-day for the Leafs (who blew their loads on Canada Day and need a day to recuperate) and some speculation on where Mr. Wonderful will play this fall.

And for the Steelheads, well, it’s not the worst draft pick they could make. Joyce quotes the Steelheads executive who says that Nylander most likely plays with the Marlies a season from now but “if there’s a slim possibility that he plays major junior next year, that’s a swing for the fences we have to take” and I don’t think he’s wrong. The Import draft is hit and miss (Nikita Sherbak was taken in the 109th spot a year ago) and the Steelheads did draft some Austrian with their second round pick who may very well lift that team up a few spots in the standings. Should Nylander struggle with the Marlies early, perhaps the Leafs might avoid burning a year on the entry-level deal and sending him down to junior for seasoning, rather than loan him to Sweden. It’s not impossible.

I have to say, though, I like the cajones on the Steelheads for the effort.