TORONTO – William Nylander’s father may have had a 920-game NHL career, but that doesn’t mean the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-round pick has any clue what to expect when he steps onto the ice for his first pre-season game.
“I have never played at the NHL level, so I have no idea,” the 18-year-old Nylander said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Fellow Swede Henrik Tallinder is 35 and knows all about life in the NHL thanks to more than 10 years of experience. But just like Nylander, Tallinder has to prove something to be on the roster because he’s in Leafs camp on a professional tryout.
With the Leafs set to play four pre-season games in the next three nights, beginning Monday against the Philadelphia Flyers in London, Ont., Nylander and Tallinder will get plenty of opportunities to show what they can do.
Tallinder was listed among nine defencemen who could get into Monday’s pre-season opener. Nylander figures to play Tuesday back at Air Canada Centre against the Flyers so the coaching staff can get a gauge of how he stacks up against pros and on North American ice.
“Obviously he’s got a skill-set, and we just want to see him continue to progress,” assistant coach Peter Horachek said. “You’re just trying some things out. You’re looking at it, see how he reacts.”
While Horachek said the Leafs need to see how Tallinder fits in, the seasoned vet isn’t worried about adapting to a new team.
“I’m too old now to change my game, so I’m just going to try to play like I’ve always done,” Tallinder said. “I’m a long, tall guy, so try and be decent with my skating ability. That’s what I’m going to try to bring.”
Tallinder figures to have the best chance of any player in camp on a tryout of making the Leafs. With a newfound appreciation for balance on the blue-line between three left-handed and three right-handed defencemen, Toronto could use an extra body behind captain Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly.
While 27-year-old Brendan Mikkelson is also in camp on a tryout and 2011 first-rounder Stuart Percy is also in the running, Tallinder and his 678 games of NHL experience give him the edge. Coach Randy Carlyle said Tallinder has “lots of moxie” and could envision him playing some tough minutes alongside Roman Polak.
“I feel that that veteran presence can have that calming effect,” Carlyle said. “We feel that in our research with Tallinder that there is a possibility that he could make our hockey club and play against some top lines.”
Tallinder has spent the bulk of his career with the Buffalo Sabres, including last season, with three years in New Jersey mixed in. He had a couple of other options for tryouts but chose Toronto in part because of the opportunity he had to make the team.
“Otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I’m just going to try to do my best and see how far that’s going to take me.”
Nylander didn’t have a choice. Drafted eighth overall by the Leafs in June’s draft, he could be on the fast track to the NHL.
During the first two scrimmages of camp, Nylander skated on a line with free-agent addition Petri Kontiola and star winger Phil Kessel. Just walking into the locker room Saturday to see he was playing with Kessel was a “pretty amazing feeling.”
In one rookie-camp game and the scrimmages, Nylander showed off some flashy passing. But he’s not trying to do anything special in camp to make the team.
“I think just play the way I’ve been playing the past year,” Nylander said. “That’s why they drafted me. They know what kind of player I am.”
Carlyle knows one thing about Nylander: “He looks like he’s 14 years old.” But the coach likes how the teenager isn’t afraid to go to the net and play with the puck in tough areas of the ice.
“I don’t know if he can do that against Zdeno Chara. That’s the question that comes,” Carlyle said.
“In these situations what you want to do is protect that young player a little bit, but you actually want to see him display his skills. You want to see him play with players that are capable of reading the play and making plays at his level, and seeing how rugged he really is.”
Marlies coach Gord Dineen said at rookie camp in London that he was impressed with Nylander’s backchecking to break up a rush. Being a smooth skater helps, but it’s also a result of experience playing in the Swedish Hockey League.
“You’re not the only guy having the puck (like when) growing up,” Nylander said. “Our line, our team, we were one of the best teams, so we never played defence. Growing up and then going into the men’s league, defence becomes a bigger role and a bigger part of the game, so that’s where I think I learned it.”
Nylander’s best bet at making the Leafs would be as a second- or third-line left-winger, and that would be more likely if Joffrey Lupul gets shifted to the right side. A pre-training-camp injury to David Clarkson might make that a possibility.
Notes—Nylander’s father Michael had 209 goals and 470 assists over 920 games with Hartford, Calgary, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Washington, Boston and the New York Rangers. … Clarkson and centre Tyler Bozak, out with lower-body injuries, skated with injured defenceman Stephane Robidas and strength and conditioning coach Anthony Belza on Saturday morning. Neither player took part in team practice. … After facing the Flyers Monday and Tuesday, the Leafs play split-squad games against the Senators in Toronto and Ottawa on Wednesday.
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter