If you’ve been following along with William Nylander’s career since he was drafted by the Leafs last summer, you already know that since then he’s done anything and everything the team could have asked of him performance-wise. His talent was again on display in the Leafs’ rookie tournament this past weekend, and among his peers, the young Swede looked out of place. [In a good way, of course.]
There’s a lot of excitement in Toronto right now about the longterm outlook of the Leafs, but as for the immediate future, plenty of times you’ll hear folks say “I’ll watch the Marlies more than the big club this season” and that’s totally understandable. I mean, most of these people are clearly lying, but the point is the Marlies will be a force, whereas the Leafs…err, won’t.
The assumption is that Nylander will join the Marlies after NHL camp (and perhaps a nine-game regular season stint) and proceed to lay waste to the minors. But given his recent run of play, it’s going to be tough to keep him out of the Leafs’ lineup and I’m not sure that’s as much of a bad thing as most have been leading on.
Perhaps the biggest argument against keeping Nylander with the Leafs is allowing his entry-level deal to slide another year while he suits up at the Ricoh, and that’s obviously a fair point. But another reason folks don’t want him to stick is because of the idea that the NHL club will be a total trainwreck this season, and who wants to expose a promising player to that? I disagree with this latter point.
If Nylander is good enough to make the NHL, and it appears he might be, I don’t think the Leafs are as toxic as they’re being played up (or I guess down) to be. Are they going to contend? Nope. Will they even make the playoffs? Highly doubtful. Are they one of the weakest teams in the league? It looks like it. But even with all this considered, I don’t think it’s such a bad environment for Nylander.
The Leafs aren’t a strong team, but they have plenty of legit NHL players heading into camp, especially up front. With moves they’ve executed this summer and the PTOs they’ve extended recently, it’s fair to assume they’ll be in a lot of close games this upcoming year and maybe even drive play for a good chunk of them, they just don’t have enough finishing power to put them over. It’s going to be a grind, but it shouldn’t be “stand back and get our teeth kicked in” Carlyle hockey. For that reason I don’t see this as feeding a kid to the wolves. The forward group is balanced, and though they don’t have much top-end talent, Babcock should be able to roll four lines quite comfortably. He has enough depth to be able to shelter Nylander’s minutes quite effectively or trot him out there in a number of different situations as he sees fit. It wouldn’t just be Nylander out there with everything burning down around him, as most probably believe. This team isn’t good, but it shouldn’t get completely run over.
If we circle back to contract status, of course it’s ideal to get as much of Nylander’s prime from his ELC as possible. But his development should always come first, and if he can be a real contributor to the Leafs, the NHL is where he should carve his teeth from here on. It probably isn’t the greatest comparison to bring up Morgan Rielly here, since he fell under the CHL agreement as a 19-year-old and had to make the Leafs or go back to the Jaw, but cracking the big lineup in 2013-14 hasn’t seemed to stifle his development whatsoever and I’d usually be more worried about a defenceman than forward, especially with the way this team has been run the last couple seasons.
If Nylander makes it, he makes it, and I don’t think we should worry too much about it, given the personnel the Leafs have now added to evaluate talent compared to the front office and bench staff they’ve had in recent years. I have confidence this group can put Nylander in a place to succeed, whether it’s in front of twenty-thousand people or just six-thousand. So whatever happens in these next few weeks, we shouldn’t get too riled up about it. The Leafs won’t be a good team, but should Nylander stay up, they have enough reliable veterans that Babcock can easily structure the lines as to not put too much demand on him.