Par Marts has a dream and it involves the Toronto Marlies getting shocked in the first round of the American League playoffs. Because that’s the only way the Swedish national team coach is going to get his hands on William Nylander for the World Championship.
With Marts and Swedish GM Peter Popovic on hand Monday night, Nylander gave them reason to salivate, registering his second multi-point game with a three-point effort in a 5-2 win over the Calgary Flames. It gave Nylander five points in his past two games and established Nylander, the No. 2 prospect in THN’s annual Future Watch edition behind future Arizona Coyote Dylan Strome, as a future go-to offensive force for the Leafs. (Future Watch can be purchased on-line by going to: https://secure.thehockeynews.com/online-store/?&utm_source=thehockeynews.com&utm_medium=digital_edition&utm_campaign=mag_site_links)
“I think he’s good enough to play in the World Championship,” Marts said. “Every time he’s on the ice something is happening. He’s turning out to be better than I thought.”
The AHL regular season ends April 17 and the World Championship begins May 6, so the only way Nylander would go to the worlds would be if the Marlies were knocked out in the first round, or possibly quickly in the second round of the playoffs. The chances of that happening are not so good, particularly with Nylander in the lineup. The Marlies are the best team in the AHL and Nylander has lit it up there, sitting behind only Frank Vatrano, Seth Griffith and Derek Grant in points per game in the AHL. Vatrano is 22, Griffith 23 and Grant soon to be 26. Nylander will not blow 20 candles out on his birthday cake until May 1.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock quickly put to rest any notion that Nylander would not be going to the Marlies for the Calder Cup tournament. And that’s as it should be. The fans in Toronto have had to endure some absolutely horrific hockey this season and deserve an opportunity to see what the farm team can do with all of its good young players in the lineup. Winning a Calder Cup did wonders for the likes of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov in 2012 and it certainly didn’t hurt Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Petr Mrazek and Brendan Smith in Grand Rapids a year later.
Nylander, meanwhile, has undoubtedly found his footing at the NHL level. Babcock was, in fact, critical of his play early, but is coming to appreciate Nylander more. And he’s also wisely put Nylander in a position to succeed, giving Nazem Kadri’s line the tougher assignment against Sam Bennett’s line Monday night, leaving the line of Nylander between Zach Hyman and P.A. Parenteau a little more room to roam.
The biggest issue between a coach and player is trust and Babcock clearly has grown to trust Nylander to play both ends of the ice. In Monday’s game, only Parenteau had more ice time among Maple Leaf forwards and 5:52 of Nylander’s 18:14 of ice time was spent on the power play. As far as Corsi goes, Nylander blew everyone away on the night with 12 shot attempts, four more than any other player on either team.
“He’s a smart, smart guy,” Babcock said of Nylander. “He knows what I’m going to talk to him about before I talk to him. I asked (Kadri) the other day at lunch, ‘Naz, do you think Willie can have as many meetings (with the coaches) as you’ve had?’ And he said, ‘There’s no chance. There’s not enough time left in the season.’ He wants to be great and he understands.”
Nylander is making a case for full-time employment in the NHL this season. Truth be told, he was good enough to make the Leafs this season, but he was not going to be rushed. It was a wise move by the Maple Leafs, putting Nylander in a winning environment and allowing him to get a taste of the NHL before sending him back down for what they hope is a long and fruitful playoff run. The trip to the NHL and the success Nylander is having have served him well.
“The more games you play, the more confidence you get,” Nylander said. “I won’t say I’ll keep putting up this (number) of points, but you just want to work every day and get better.”
The test for Nylander and the other young Leafs will be in the coming days when they face Anaheim, Boston, Tampa Bay and Florida in succession. The latter two games are on the road where the Leafs will not have the last change. Babcock also said Tyler Bozak will be back in the lineup Thursday night against Anaheim. “The matchups won’t be pretty and it might be hard for him,” Babcock said. “I was watching Anaheim play Winnipeg the other night and (Ryan) Kesler was running all over them, so is the tougher matchup Getzy (Ryan Getzlaf) or him? Then you get every shift out there against men and you figure out how hard it is to have the puck.”
Playing against men should not be a problem. Nylander has been doing it since he was 16 and his performance against them in both the AHL and NHL – a combined 52 points in 49 games – bodes well for the future. That immediate future likely doesn’t include a stint with Tre Kronor, but if things go as planned, Nylander just might lead the Center of the Hockey Universe™ to its first major hockey championship since the junior Marlies won the Memorial Cup in 1975.