Figuring out the top 2 prospects in the Leafs system was easy. Figuring out who was 1 and who was 2 wasn’t. In fact, final voting of the TLN staff had Mitch Marner and William Nylander separated by 1 point. Of seven voters, three had Nylander in 1st. The debate might have caused some online fistfights on Slack, but cooler heads prevailed when we all thought to ourselves – when was the last time the Leafs had two prospects with this much skill that could cause this much debate as to who is better?
The answer is never. And that’s an exciting endorsement of the Leafs system and the high-end ceilings of the crown jewels of that system.
The advantage of drafting high-end Europeans is that you let them develop against men instead of yawning their way through another year in the CHL. That’s why I have Nylander as the best prospect in the Leafs system by a hair. His last season was absolutely unreal. He dominated the SHL before crossing the pond and dominating the AHL. All as an 18 year old. Outstanding development that gives you more confidence in a player than another great year in the CHL.
Corey Pronman of ESPN has Nylander as the 6th best prospect in the NHL, after Sam Bennett and before Dylan Strome.
After a bit of a bumpy draft season, Nylander had a fantastic 18-year-old season. His production in the SHL was among the very best by a player his age in recent memory — he was very good at the World Juniors and in the AHL. He’s a dynamic puck-carrying threat with the speed, skill and vision to make very tough offensive plays. His all-around play still has to come, but teams try to get him the puck when he’s on the ice because he keeps control away from the opposition.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast this against Elite Prospect’s scouting report on Nylander prior to him being drafted.
A highly skilled player offensively. Nylander skates very well, has impressive hands and is excellent at handling the puck at high speeds. Hockey sense is very impressive and he likes to shoot the puck a lot, but is also capable of delivering perfect passes. A very agile player that protects the puck well and skates hard in the offensive zone.
On the other hand, his defensive game needs some work. Not a selfish player, but at times he tends to hang onto the puck for too long, instead of making the easier play. Has the tools and skills to lead his team in all offensive aspects.
So not a lot has changed, which is good in terms of his offensive skill. This year should be focused on developing his defensive game, which will be very important if he is to be converted full-time to centre.
It’s in the best interest of team and player to keep Nylander away from the garbage fire that this upcoming season is likely to be. Giving him the opportunity to lead a high-end AHL team in the Marlies will give Nylander a full year on North American ice. That said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Nylander play himself out of AHL competition, and earn a full-time call-up with the Leafs. It likely wouldn’t happen until the trade deadline, when the Leafs will likely have another firesale of one-year contracts for picks, and have some roster spots to fill.
Where this season will be especially interesting is in seeing Nylander play full-time at centre. This is something he excelled at in Sweden, and says it is where he is most comfortable. That would be absurd if true, as he notched 32 points in 37 games last year on the wing.
The fact that Nylander and Marner are so interchangeable at 1 and 2 is exciting as a Leafs fan. The future is bright – very bright – and it will be lead by these two. While some of us have Nylander at 1, and others have Marner in that spot, in the end it doesn’t matter. Both players will be playing for the Leafs for a very long time, and that’s what is worth discussing more than their rankings.
This upcoming season will allow both Nylander and Marner to work on being full-time centres in their respective leagues. The Leafs will be in good hands as long as one is able to become a centre at the NHL level. If both are able to transition, the team could end up having one of the best centre depths in the league with Marner-Nylander-Kadri-Gauthier. Now that would be a real symbol of change in Leafland.