William Nylander to return to the lineup tonight vs. Grand Rapids

Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com

Toronto Maple Leafs top prospect William Nylander will make his return to the Marlies lineup tonight, according to head coach Sheldon Keefe.

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“Willie will draw back in today,” said Keefe after today’s morning skate. “We’ll use today as a good opportunity to get him in, get him back into game mode.”

Keefe noted that, due to the travel and back-to-back nature of the games this weekend, this will be Nylander’s only competitive game of the weekend, ruling him out for Saturday’s game against the Binghamton Senators. 

Nylander has been out of the Marlies lineup since December 18th, at which point he packed his bags to head to Helsinki for the World Juniors. While he was excellent in pre-tournament matches and scored a goal on his first shift, Nylander was blindsided by Swiss winger Curtis Egli in his next appearance on ice.

The hit removed Nylander from the tournament; a precaution that the Swedish Ice Hockey Association was pretty comfortable with making with their star player, but were certainly encouraged with Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello flew across the world to talk to the team’s vice-chair. Lamoriello even went as far as having a scheduled media availability for Nylander cancelled to ensure that his recovery process was in no way exaggerated or interrupted.

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The Leafs have been nothing short of precautious throughout the whole ordeal. Nylander didn’t travel back to Toronto until after the conclusion of the tournament to ensure that any post-concussion symptoms wouldn’t get negatively affected by the flight and took their time to integrate him into non-contact practices.

Having him play in just the single game this weekend makes a lot of sense. For one, you don’t want to over-work somebody coming back from a severe head injury, especially if they have to rush from Michigan to Toronto immediately after the first game. It also makes more sense to play him in Grand Rapids rather than against Binghamton; you minimize the post-game media looking for answers after his first game back, you get the help of your best player against a very good team that’s severely overdue for a win, and you also face a team with a lower risk of getting overly aggressive with the 19-year-old.

Grand Rapids is below the league average as far as how many penalty minutes that they take per game, and the team tends to lean on a more skill-based style of play. Particularly with their spot in the standings on the line, they’ll be less concerned with causing trouble. Binghamton, on the other hand, are at he bottom of the Western Conference and are the most penalized team in the AHL (second in PIM per game). Players like Zack Stortini (who has a history of dirty hits against Toronto, including giving a concussion to Nazem Kadri in 2012) and former Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser (who is known for punishing body checks) are likely the types that they’d like Nylander to avoid running into while they’re testing out his game readiness.

Lastly, giving him the night off increases the chances of him being fully ready to go for the AHL All-Star Festivities, which happen on Sunday and Monday. Nylander has not been ruled out for the event, which will also include Josh Leivo, TJ Brennan, and Sheldon Keefe.

You can catch Nylander’s first game back tonight at 7:00 PM. 

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