William Nylander could become the AHL’s first 100 point teenager

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William Nylander’s pre-season has gotten off to a good start. He looked significantly better than any player in the London Rookie Tournament, Leafs or otherwise, and his offensive instincts have somehow become even more obvious as he’s faced more difficult opponents in the pre-season. If anything, he almost looks held back by his linemates, who often aren’t expecting him to make his upper-echelon plays to get them the puck.

It’s not crazy to deem him ready for the NHL, but at the same time, the present situation might not make that the most opportune scenario for either side. This leaves the Toronto Marlies, who he spent the lattter half of last year playing for, as his likely destination. The question from there is a simple one: “What could he do with a full season?”

While far from a guarantee, there’s a distinct possibility that everybody’s favourite Calgary-born Swede could become the first teenager in the history of the American Hockey League to hit the 100 point plateau.

A Tough Choice

Before we get to the main event, it’s important to outline why this scenario puts such a skilled player back into the American Hockey League to begin with. Consider the following:

  • The Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot of forwards at the moment. There are thirteen forwards currently on the roster have both proven themselves to be regular NHL players. Coincidentally, none of these players are waiver exempt. To keep Nylander up with the Leafs full-time would require a player to be sent through waivers, or it would require another trade.
  • This group of thirteen don’t include Brad Boyes, Curtis Glencross, and Devin Setoguchi, who are all on Professional Tryouts at the moment. While Setoguchi is a bit of a long-shot, the former pair have looked effective in their first few days of camp, and if signed, could be turned into future assets for the team at a later time.
  • It’s important for the team’s success to stockpile as many future assets as possible, and the Leafs will be looking to explore every avenue that brings them to that point moving forward.
  • From a pure hockey perspective, the team would be hard-pressed to find an opportune roster spot for Nylander. Toronto already has Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak as probable first and second line centres, and Peter Holland will be breathing down their necks all year, along with multiple other full time and occasional centres. This limits Nylander’s potential minutes in his natural position. On left wing, Nylander’s fallback, he would have to compete with James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul. No matter which way you slice it, the current depth likely puts a young, skilled forward in a low minute role that often includes less offensive opportunity.
Injuries, suspensions and trades could obviously change the potential pathways for Nylander, but as it stands, the American Hockey League offers him more minutes and a choice of position, while still offering him the ability to play against men. 

It’s also unlikely that the Leafs would use him as a temporary call-up. Take a look at what Kyle Dubas said to Kyle Cicerella regarding defenceman Stuart Percy’s see-saw 2014/15 season:

“I don’t think our process with Stu was good enough,” said Dubas, who also serves as Marlies GM. “I thought we rushed him up and he played real well and as soon as he started to struggle, we didn’t really protect him up here with his usage, so on and so forth for a 21-year-old. Then we struggled and put him right down. I don’t have anybody to blame but myself. I take the brunt of that.”

With this considered, it’s unlikely that the Leafs would do the same to nineteen-year-old that they see as one of their “crown jewels”.

Also of note is Nylander’s contract status. Because he spent his mid-teens in Europe, he’s able to play in the AHL with the same stipulations as a North American would heading to junior; his NHL contract only counts as a year burned once he plays his tenth game. If the Leafs feel that it would be advantageous to push his Entry-Level contract a year further, then keeping him down for the full season would accomplish that.

Sliding his ELC has it’s pros and cons. On the plus side, it could save you money if your team is competitive in a year where it’s been pushed along. As well, it pushes his last year of RFA status back further. But, it could cost you more money when the player is further developed in the last year of the deal and is able to produce better numbers. It’s hard to say which the Leafs would prefer.

In any event, with all of these factors considered, let’s run with the assumption that the Leafs will send him to the AHL for one more year, before making a full-time member of the Leafs in 2016/17.

A Tough Challenge

If we’re being honest with ourselves, calling for any player in the American Hockey League to score 100 points is a pretty high expectation in this day an age, let alone claiming that it’ll be done by a nineteen-year-old. As the league enters its 80th anniversary, the feat has occurred exactly 98 times, accomplished by players between the ages of 20 and 35. That’s not exactly frequent, and to add to that, nobody has done it since Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux in 2010.

To be on this list, you often needed at least one of the following qualities:

  • Being part of a certain generation helped; honestly, the 100 point plateau is a relic of the AHL of old. Two-thirds (63) of these seasons occurred the 1980s and 1990s, and over half (52) were specifically in between 1983 and 1996. This was when the league was at its weakest, and dominated by players whose NHL parent clubs didn’t want to deal with the likes of the stronger IHL, and more competitive than the present ECHL.
  • Teammates were a huge factor. There are multiple cases where a pair of forwards on the same line hit the mark, like the aforementioned Aucoin and Giroux. Don “Tyler’s Father” Biggs doesn’t break the single season record of 138 points without Brian Reynolds there to support him. Carolina had an entire line make the list in 1996, as did Nova Scotia in 1973. On that note…
  • Teams that look beyond the development process and focus on the Calder Cup are more likely to produce these players; the Hershey Bears, for example, are on this list fourteen times, including six times in eight years from 1989 to 1996. Successful teams breed successful top-line players.
  • Most of the players involved are in athletic prime age. People used to say that this was as late as 29 or 30 years old, though the stat sheets have said that 25 is the magic number in the NHL, at least as far as point production goes. The same appears to ring true here: while there is a slight surge at the age of 28, over half of the players hit the century mark no later than their age 25 season.
100plus
  • More than anything, these players don’t crawl up; they take leaps. I looked at the 78 players on this list who played in the AHL in the year prior to their 100 point season, and they averaged a 29% increase in points per game. This is even more apparent in the younger ages. For example, those who scored 100 when they were 21 years old had a 60% increase in their point production, and everybody who did it at the age of 24 or younger averaged an over 40% increase.
  • Interestingly enough, hot sticks aren’t the only things to point to in these scenarios. Goals definitely go up; players score with 22% more frequency, but the bigger climb is in assists, where they achieve 33% growth. This would lead one to believe that the additional offence comes from more ice time and better teammates, rather than shooting percentages (which are hard to come by for most AHL seasons).
  • You obviously have to stay in the lineup as well. The players involved played an average of 73.5 games; just barely shy of a full present-day 76 game season. In fact, eleven of our players got in by scoring 100-105 points in 77+ games, which one could argue invalidates them a bit.

An Accomplishable Task

While lining up to all of the aforementioned aspects would be a tough task for Nylander, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

The Marlies aren’t a traditional “going for it” team like the Bears or the Wolves, but will likely be a the upper half of the American Hockey League this year. This is a team that went 35-15-7 in the final 57 games of the season, thanks in no small part to the rookies getting a grasp of the league and the addition of some depth to the lineup.

This year, the depth is overwhelming. The Leafs and Marlies have so many players signed that the Solar Bears will likely have to sign fewer than five of their own players to ECHL contracts, as part of Toronto’s new baseball-like development model. Jon Seitzer and I were spitballing potential lines this morning, and came to the conclusion that the Marlies have a minimum of three forward lines and two defensive pairings that could handle some form of NHL workload, be it as depth or as actual contributors in an ideal situation.

Nylander, of course, will spend the bulk of his minutes with the best of that bunch. To his left, he’ll have one of Brendan Leipsic or Connor Brown, who were both top five in rookie points-per-game last year as twenty-year-olds (Nylander, at eighteen, was first amongst those with 30+ games played). To his right, he’ll have Kasperi Kapanen, who played just four regular season games in North America last year but ended up with five points in seven playoff appearances.

Behind him, Nylander will likely have TJ Brennan and, well, whoever they feel will complement him best. Brennan is probably the best offensive defenceman in the American Hockey League, and he’s performed his best in Toronto, scoring 109 points in 114 games over the past two seasons. Brennan has shown visually (at the AHL level) and statistically (in limited NHL samples) an ability to move the play into the offensive zone, as well as an eagerness to use his booming slapshot to put the puck in, or at least closer to, the net. 

Given reputation and prior success, it’s likely that Nylander will often be surrounded with three players that are capable of contributing to, if not creating offensive opportunities, to the effect of being 60-70 point players without him. That goes a long way, especially when you swap out that second defender for one of Byron Froese, Matt Frattin, or whichever of Brown/Leipsic plays on Line Two when the team goes on the powerplay. This team has the potential to score more goals than any Marlies team in history if you take him out of the equation; to think that he’s a step ahead of their talent level only adds to the excitement.

Nylander likes the cast of players that he’s been surrounded with so far. “I felt that when I came in, the group was strong. They kept together through the tough times, and once I got there, they helped me and took care of me.”

New head coach Sheldon Keefe is also unlikely to turn this team into a boring one; his Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds lead their division in goals in both of his full seasons, and their 342 tallies last year were the most by any team at the major-junior level.

Even still, Nylander would require a 52% jump in per-game production efficiency to hit 100, which is a lofty expectation. However, as previously mentioned, its the younger players that make the biggest leaps from great to elite. The most recent example of this would probably be Mike Cammalleri, who jumped from 0.95 points per game as a 21-year-old with the 03/04 Manchester Monarchs to 1.37 in the year that followed; representing a 43% climb.

That’s not as significant as a jump as Nylander needs, but it’s worth keeping in mind that he had a slow start to last season. In his first six games, he picked up just two points. In those games, he wasn’t confidently playing the style of game that he was known for. He wasn’t taking his usual risks, nor was he shooting as much as he was known to do. The points that he did tally came from picking up loose change in front of the net, and much of his ice time appeared to be spent getting a feel for the style of play in the AHL.

“I don’t think it was too bad.” Nylander said of the transition. “It’s a different style of play, so it took some time, but after a while, it went pretty well.” Pretty well might be an understatement; he picked up 30 points in the 32 games that followed, including 23 in his final 21.

The footage doesn’t lie. He began using his release more. His confidence and patience with the puck returned. His ability to sneak into lethal positions improved, which was useful for the times where there wasn’t enough room turn on the jets. You began to see a player who skated too well to be in this league, thought the offensive game a step ahead of the rest of the league, and could capitalize on opportunities better than just about anybody in the league. All of this, while being the third-youngest player in a league of hundreds of players. An offseason of training has proven to make him bigger, stronger, and more skilled; traditional hockey values would indicate that he’ll be a terror to anybody in his path. The numbers? Even more so.

productioncurve

Besides, making these type of leaps appears to be business as usual for Nylander. An example of this would be his time in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). In his Age 17 season, Nylander put up 7 points in 22 games; just 0.318 points. Against men, this is still very impressive (13th all time in the SHL), but a far cry from dominance. Before he jumped to the Marlies, however, he was putting up historic numbers – his 20 points in 21 games trail only Markus Naslund and Tomas Sandstrom for the highest scoring rate for an eighteen-year-old, and nearly triple what he accomplished in the prior season. 

Now that Nylander has re-adjusted to the North American game, it’s not unrealistic to think that he could see the same production growth as the 20-year-olds on this list. “Playing in Sweden for half the year, then coming over to play some AHL hockey was a good learning experience for me,” said Nylander. “Hopefully it made me a better player.”

Conclusion

There’s a reason why many people believe that Wiliam Nylander is the best prospect in the Leafs organization, if not one of the best young players in the world. His raw talent, natural instincts, elite skating ability, and seemingly infinite levels of creativity leave him poised to become a special player in the NHL one day; it’s just unlikely that that day comes in the next couple of weeks.

The best case scenario, with all things considered, is to make Nylander the star player of the Toronto Marlies. The Leafs will, as much as they’d like to succeed, likely play the role of “asset farm” until February, so it makes more sense to place him into a winning environment with his fellow youth. They appear to have learned from the yo-yoing of the past, and will allow their prospect to commit to a spot until he looks able to take the next step on and never look back. The stars are aligning for the Winter of William to go down, so to speak.

It’ll help him further develop the creative side of his game while maximizing his minutes. He’ll get to play meaningful hockey late into the spring. He’ll likely make those who surround him better, as they learn to keep up with his skill level. He’ll put fans in the seats, pressure on management, and pressure on himself.

Thankfully, when there’s pressure on William Nylander, he usually performs historically well. Let’s see if he can do it again.

Photo Courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com

Nylander Quotes sourced from this one-on-one with Paul Hendrick / Leafs TV, July 2015

  • silentbob

    Everything you say is true, but, he could also still benefit from the NHL. Playing with and against NHL talent, practicing with NHL talent and coaching could give him an even higher quantum leap than your predicting. Also, Rookie killer, Randy is gone, replaced by one of the best in the game. After the second half of last season, I want, nay, demand, nay, deserve to see high end talent wearing a Leaf jersey. If he looks overwhelmed, no problem, send him down to the farm for more seasoning. Everyone said the same exact thing about Riley’s 19 yr old season. Hasn’t seemed to bother him much. Detroit let their players develop longer because they had to. They didn’t have the high end talent of Willie, working on the farm for 3-4 yrs. He is the only Marlie I want to see start the season, all the rest do need more time to fully cook, but Nylander looks ready.

    • Dubas specifically said that Toronto doesn’t want to send people down for being overwhelmed. If they want to be absolutely sure Nylander sticks in the NHL upon his first call up, he’ll need more development time.

      • How does that work? You’ll never be sure until you try him at the NHL level. We won’t know if he’s overwhelmed until it happens, if it happens, and we won’t know that till he plays. Who’s to say that doesn’t happen next yr too? Dubas was more talking about bringing up a player and sending him down, and up and down. NOt, he breaks camp, he’s not ready so we have to demote him. If you follow that logic, Conner McD will be playing in OKC. What if, in your words, they are absolutely sure, and he’s still not ready, where does the theory go from there? Not every player fits in the paradigm of the Det model. Willie has two years playing pro, against men, McD has been playing against kids, should they not start him in EDM? IF none of that persuades you,than go with, he’s prettier than McD.

        • silentbob

          Yes evey player can and does fit the “Detroit model” you just have to have the Patrice and discipline to make it work, not let all the visions in your head of Nylander dominating the NHL overwhelm your thinking.

          It logical that a 20 or 21 or 22 year old with more games under his belt, win time playing in the system the team plays is going to better equipped to deal with the NHL then a 19 year old without that development/experience. So why not wait until nylander has that experience? What is to be gained by rushing him?

          • silentbob

            So McDavid shouldn’t start for the oilers? What about last yrs rookie of the year? What about, I could name a thousand players? How about an 18 yr old Dman no one had heard of, an 8th rounder no less, Thomas Kabarle? It is also logical that a player might grow stagnant at a certain level if he is not challenged. Like sending McDavid back to Erie. Each player is different, the Det model or any other one, won’t fit every player. It’s a talking point that lots of people are parroting, because it sounds “logical”, logical would have kept Ekblad in Junior last yr. Logic would mean that Pit would have waited an extra yr to see Crosby score 103 pts as a rook. I don’t for a second think he is in that same level as those guys, but he is also a year older, and as mentioned, already has 2 yrs pro. I also never said he would dominate the NHL, just that he shouldn’t necessarily go back to the Marlies. If he’s good enough, he should play with and against the best. Only after we see him in the NHL will we know if he is ready or not.

          • silentbob

            I’d hold every player to the same standard. But who cares? McDavid is an Oiler and Nylander isn’t McDavid.

            Kaberle was 22 when he started with the Leafs.

            Do you really think William Nylander is a perfect hockey player who has nothing to improve and challenge himself with at the AHL level?

          • silentbob

            Nope and never said otherwise. I just see a player that is probably ready to play in the NHL, and should not be sent down because of some formula. If he’s good enough, he plays. If not, send him back down, I’ll buy him the subway tokens.

        • FlareKnight

          Honestly, I agree. The idea that you keep him down until you are absolutely sure he’s ready means….you never have him in the NHL. Unless you have a crystal ball you can’t know.

          In the end it is about what Nylander shows in camp and how he performs in the pre-season. If he shows he can take a top 2 center spot on this team and is ready to go then he should be on the team. There is being reasonably cautious and there is being crazy.

          If he isn’t ready to go and doesn’t show he can take a spot then fine send him down and let him have a great year with the Marlies.

          It’s about what Nylander is ready to do now, not any artificial guideline. Don’t rush him and don’t pointlessly keep him down when he is ready. Up to the Leafs to figure out which is which.

          • Gary Empey

            At this moment he has to outplay Bozak to win a job. If he can’t do that then he has three more years to wait until Bozak’s contract runs out.

            Let’s hope Stamkos doesn’t sign with the Leafs next year or Nylander may never make the team.

          • silentbob

            There is no deside to being overly cautious, there is a downside to rushing him.

            It’s amazing how quickly it took for people to forget about being patient and doing things right.

          • Gary Empey

            I don’t want to rush anyone. I want the guys that are skilled enough to play on the big club. Nylander is the only rook, I’m saying is ready, or at least so far, looks ready. Each time I see him play he impresses me. Not so much so far for others who could have a chance, like Lipsic, Brown, Kapanen, and I’d rather see, Percy, Harrington, or Brennan at the no.7 D, over Robidas.

      • silentbob

        No no no. They need to rush him to the NHL asap and start playing as the leafs number 1 center, after all he’s played well in a rookie tournament against mostly boys with no Future in the NHL and in some preseason games. With that kind of resume I think the min, we should expect from him is a 78 goal, 143 point rookie season.

        Most of us preached patience for a good 2 or 3 months, that’s like an entire summer. How much longer do you expect us to wait?

      • silentbob

        Right from the horses mouth.

        Jonas Siegel ‏@jonasTSN1050 2h2 hours ago
        Babcock impressed by Nylander so far: “He just has to keep doing it and doing it and if he keeps doing it, he takes someone’s job.”

          • silentbob

            And they may find the same thing out about Nylander, and they don’t want to do that again.

            So why not play it safe, wait until he is a bit older, let him learn the systems and his role in them inside and out in the AHL (making the transition easier) and has proved the game isn’t too quick for him by calling him up short term once or twice before giving him a full time spot? Thats what the team we all want the Leafs emulate does.

          • Gary Empey

            The Leafs very well may do that. Though Babcock did say “if you’re a young guy and you want to play on the Leafs? Just take someone’s job. It’s real simple.

            So it comes down to is he better than Bozak or Kadri yet? Babcock also said “tie goes to the veteran.”

            I do see your point and I think it is valid in most cases.

            What I don’t see is Babcock’s view. I believe he has a much better feel for a player’s overall game than I do.

          • Gary Empey

            I have watched the Leafs send all their prospects to develop in the AHL forever. Most spend a few years there then disappear. So I am not sure how you think this is a guarantee of success. Only Kadri and Reimer made the Leafs from there. The other couple of hundred developed into good AHL players. I am not saying this will happen to Nylander.

            It is often a good idea for defencemen and goalies to spend some time in the AHL.

            You are aware Nylander had to slow his game down last year. This year he is even faster. Some people commented on here in preseason he was too quick for some of his team mates

            There are lots of headhunters down there trying to make a name for themselves. Look for other teams to injure our top prospects to win the game.

  • lmao. this is what happens when you associate yourself with the canucks folks. he won’t even make it to 100 points in the ahl if he’s on that pace, he’ll be in the nhl. i don’t even think he’ll play the entire season with the marlies. he’ll probably be called up after the deadline.

  • Not the same thing at all I know but my eldest son was a “last pick” for a rep team with a coach notorious for limiting playing time. We decided that he’d have more fun being a big fish in a small pond etc.

    And he did. But, from a pure hockey perspective, he got to try a lot more things that he would not have had a chance to try at the faster level and his confidence and ability all increased noticeably.

    I think it’s absolutely the right thing to let Sweet William dominate the AHL and hone his game for next year.

  • silentbob

    Leafs and Nylander want him to play at center. He needs a year in the AHL to prove he can handle the defensive responsibilities that this position requires. Also why have him suffer through what could potentially be a very depressing season with the big club on a very underwhelming roster? I would rather see him in a positive environment where the team is challenging for the AHL championship so he learns what it takes to win. And then bring all that with him to the Leafs next year once Babcock has worked some of the kinks out with the big club this year.

  • magesticRAGE

    If Willie stays in the AHL, he’ll further hone his skills, his mastery of being a center man, and his defensive play. This I know, and his coaches know. Everyone knows he is an NHL player, but Willie and the organization is better off with him dominating on the Marlies all the way to the Calder.
    The experience competing and winning in the playoffs in a pro environment is priceless, especially when he’s the offensive fixture of the team.
    Also, is better for his teammates. For players to play with elite talent, their respective game has to elevate. Nylander’s presence on the team will make his linemates better.
    Also to keep in mind, leading the Marlies offensively can add to leadership qualities that have been alluded to already, growing his character.
    There’s a lot to be had at both levels, I just think there’s more in the AHL. Very good read by the way.

  • magesticRAGE

    I truly can’t wait for William Nylander to hit 100 points in the ahl as a teenager so fans and Don Cherry can still complain that the leafs should have take good gritty Ontario boy Nick Ritchie.