‘King Willie’ is the crown jewel in the Maple Leafs’ rapidly replenishing treasure trove of prospects. And management has no plans to rush any of them to the big club until they’re perfectly polished.
The Toronto Marlies are generally treated as the bastard child of the Toronto Maple Leafs, an afterthought in a hockey market where fans call into talk radio and wonder why their NHL team can’t just trade for P.K. Subban, like it’s that easy, or simply snap their fingers and sign Steven Stamkos and John Tavares when they become free agents. Toronto’s AHL franchise plays in a former horse palace, albeit a wonderfully refurbished one that makes for a great viewing experience, and despite being in the AHL’s biggest city and the Center of the Hockey Universe™ where they’re in first place and the NHL team is dead last, you can always get a ticket. Sometimes you might even have to pay for it. But there’s a lot of foot room for patrons since the arena is usually only about two-thirds full. On this day in early February, however, the Marlies have the rule of the roost. The Maple Leafs are out of town on an extended road trip, so the Marlies take over the big club’s practice facility, a four-pad rink in the west end of the city. At one point during practice, Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe breaks the team into two groups, with one traipsing over to one rink to work exclusively on skill development and the other staying behind to work on systems.
It is brilliant. And it’s just one of a myriad of reasons why, for the first time in years, there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel that does not resemble an oncoming train. From the top down, the Maple Leafs have gone from being an organization that relied on free agency and trades to one whose primary focus is drafting the right players and developing them properly. The Leafs are aiming to become one of those franchises that uses its financial might to stock its front office with the best talent identifiers in the game and then trust them to draft the best players, develop them into stars and use that to attract top free agents. “We want to become the New York Yankees of the NHL,” said first-year GM Lou Lamoriello. “There’s no reason why we can’t.”
One of those players is William Nylander, a quiet 19-year-old with great blond flow and on-ice moves that are just as impressive. He’s a little undersized by NHL standards, but he has wonderful puck skills, can score and set up plays with equal aplomb, and gets around the ice pretty well. And like his father, former NHLer Michael Nylander, William comes with great expectations. In our 1992 Future Watch edition, we ran a story on a 19-year-old Michael that might have just slightly raised expectations. The headline read, “The G-Word,” and made references to how Michael, then a Hartford prospect playing in Sweden, was being compared to Wayne Gretzky.
The son doesn’t face the same burden of expectation, but it is there. You’d better believe it is. The Maple Leafs are in complete rebuild mode, and the pain that coach Mike Babcock forecasted when he signed the richest coaching contract in the history of the game last summer is coming to fruition. Quite nicely, actually. The Maple Leafs now officially have the first-overall pick this year. And thanks to a tear-down orchestrated by team president Brendan Shanahan, they could be picking in the top five for the next couple drafts, quite an about-face for an organization that has made a cottage industry of frittering away draft choices. The Maple Leafs have 12 picks at the 2016 draft. Stamkos and Auston Matthews await, and fans are expecting the first real rebuild in decades to lead to a Stanley Cup parade through Canada’s financial district and down Bay Street.
And Nylander is a large part of that. He has moved up nine spots in our individual Future Watch rankings to second overall among NHL-affiliated prospects playing outside the league. And Mitch Marner, who is tearing up the OHL with the London Knights, is right behind him at No. 3. It’s rarified air for the Maple Leafs and almost uncharted territory for anyone. Since THN began compiling its top-50 prospect list in 1994, a two-three punch has occurred only once – in 2000 when Henrik and Daniel Sedin were the No. 2 and 3 prospects. (Do those guys do anything apart?) Two years before, the New York Islanders had the No. 2 and 4 prospects in Eric Brewer and Roberto Luongo, and in 2006 the Pittsburgh Penguins had the No. 1 and 6 prospects in Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Leafs, meanwhile, are showing tangible signs of putting out the tire fire that has been their program of drafting and developing. The salary cap era hasn’t been kind to them, to say the least. Since 2006, the Leafs have never placed higher than 18th in our Future Watch rankings and have had an average ranking of 26th since 2006. The past three years, they’ve been ranked 25th, 29th and 27th. That’s all changing with the additions of Nylander and Marner and will only improve as the prospects keep coming. Nylander spent most of the season in the AHL despite repeated howls to call him up to the Maple Leafs. As they struggled through bad play and a rash of injuries, Nylander was still waiting to play his first NHL game. And the lack of a recall was not based on his play. With 40 points in 32 games, Nylander was behind only two other players among the AHL’s top 100 scorers in points per game. He was finally called to the NHL on February 29 and played the final 22 games. The sense is the Maple Leafs, an organization where blue-chippers have gone to watch their careers go down a sinkhole, are doing right by Nylander. No sense in making him a part of this mess. But with that grooming comes expectation. Perhaps not the Gretzky-esque projections his father faced, but there is certainly that savior element to all of it.
It’s a delicate balance of managing expectations and dealing with the reality that he’s playing in the AHL when he’s better than most of the players he sees on the big team.
“From the time I was young, people have looked at my father and what he did and just expected me and my brother (Alex, the leading scorer for the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL and a first-round prospect for the 2016 draft) to be good players,” Nylander said. “It hasn’t really changed. It’s just there are more expectations and they’re bigger. But you don’t think about that. You just go out and play.”
His ability to do just that has undoubtedly been aided by the family support he has had around him. Michael landed a gig as an assistant coach for the Steelheads this season, so he and his two sons live in a small house together in Toronto, where Dad does all the cooking. Mom, Camilla, and the three younger sisters – aged nine, 11 and 15 – were due to move into a new house sometime in March so the family could be together. For all the great things that have happened to him this season, there have been some setbacks, and it was comforting for Nylander to have his family with him. In Sweden’s first game of the World Junior Championship, Nylander absorbed a blindside hit and was knocked out of the tournament with a concussion, a crushing blow considering he was cherishing the opportunity to perform on the world stage with his younger brother and best friend.
“How often does a guy get to play in the world juniors with his brother on the same line?” Nylander said. “Before the hit came, we had played two shifts together and scored one goal. And you’re thinking, ‘This can’t be happening.’ I think if I had played, we would have had a good chance of winning the gold medal.”
Then when he was recuperating from his concussion, he came down with appendicitis and was on medication for about a week.
“We caught it early so they were able to give me some medicine,” Nylander said. “If I get it again, they’ll have to take it out. It was a short fix, and hopefully it stays that way.”
Ask any NHL scout and he’ll tell you that the biggest adjustment a player has to make in his career is getting to the AHL level, not the NHL. When a player, particularly a teenager, shows up in the AHL for the first time, he comes to the realization he’s playing for keeps now. He’s playing with men, some of them veterans in their 30s with NHL experience, whose success in the AHL is directly linked to their ability to put food on their family’s table. But it has been an almost seamless transition for Nylander, who came to the AHL from Sweden in the middle of last season. Projected over a full season, Nylander’s numbers from parts of two seasons equate to an 80-point campaign, all of which has been accomplished as a teenager who doesn’t turn 20 until May.
There is a good reason for that. Nylander, as well as the rest of the family, followed Michael on almost all his NHL stops. After his dad was traded from the Hartford Whalers to the Flames, Nylander was born in Calgary and followed his father to Tampa, Chicago, Washington, Boston, New York, then back to Washington. William has been a hockey nomad, jumping between Sweden and North America as a kid, playing at the age of 14 for the Chicago Mission bantam team that lost the national championship to Belle Tire from Detroit, a team that would later have nine NHL draft picks, including first-rounders Dylan Larkin, Zach Werenski, Brendan Perlini and Kyle Connor.
But the other reason is that this season is the fifth one that Nylander has been playing with men, going back to playing in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-tier pro league, with his father. From there he moved to the Modo hockey factory of the tier-1 Swedish League in northern Sweden before joining the Marlies.
“I’ve been playing with men since I was 16, so coming here and playing with men wasn’t really that big of a difference,” Nylander said. “The way the game is played over here was the only real difference. ‘Kapi’ (fellow Maple Leafs’ prospect and world juniors hero Kasperi Kapanen), we both were playing with men when we were really young.”
But there is no hiding in a city where even prospects can be under a microscope at times. Despite playing mostly in the minors, Nylander often gets identified in public. He is happy to pose for pictures and sign autographs, and he doesn’t get rattled when fans tell him to go out and win a Stanley Cup for them before they die. Before that happens, he has to become a player who is ready for the rigors of the NHL and the demands of playing in the best league in the world.
“He wants to be great,” Keefe said. “Willie is a strong guy. His leg strength and power is right up there with anybody on our team. It’s intensity and competitiveness on both sides of the puck and consistency in his game. It’s up to us to make sure that he’s ready when that call comes.”
The Maple Leafs have made a statement on how they want to handle their young players in the way they’ve dealt with Nylander. And they’re making a statement about their future by staying with a plan that will exchange all of this pain into pleasure for their success-starved fans down the road. For the first time, there are no shortcuts, no blustery GM proclaiming a disdain for five-year plans and talking about how they name schools after you if you win a Stanley Cup in Toronto.
Now at the helm is Lamoriello, who won three Stanley Cups with the Devils and made a career out of being able to accurately and continually gauge the worth of players. Instead of having a front office filled with highly paid executives, the Leafs have put their resources into young minds, top scouts and people with backgrounds in assessing players both with eyeballs and flow charts.
“You never duplicate a situation,” Lamoriello said of the experience he brings over from the Devils. “Coming here, we’re going to have a Leaf way of doing things. Maybe it’s a combination of Detroit, maybe it’s a combination of New Jersey and a combination of Toronto making us who we are. What excites me most about this (scouting) staff is you cannot be afraid of making a mistake, and you cannot be afraid of taking a risk. They don’t all work out, but safe decisions are not always the best.”
Case in point, Mitch Marner. His potential is enormous, and he’s a player director of player personnel Mark Hunter recruited and developed for the London Knights. When the Carolina Hurricanes came to Toronto in late January, Leaf fans got to see Noah Hanifin, taken one pick after Marner in 2015, play 21 shifts at the NHL level totalling 21:35 in ice time and look very good. And Hanifin may turn out to be a better player than Marner, but the upside with Marner is very high. He’s a sublimely gifted offensive talent who makes jaw-dropping plays. Hanifin will be a very good NHLer, but Marner has an opportunity to be a great one. And so it goes with the Maple Leafs, an organization that has seen more transition over the past couple years than any other.
Change is difficult, something the Maple Leafs can attest to as they look up at 29 other teams in the standings, but change can also bring better days. With Shanahan at the helm and seemingly able to convince anyone to do what he wants – whether it’s by convincing the team’s board of governors to dispense with playoff revenues and commit to a rebuild or convince the likes of Babcock and Lamoriello to join him in his quest – there has never been a steadier hand at the tiller. Hunter is regarded as one of the hardest working and best assessors of young talent in the game, Keefe is one of the games brightest up-and-coming coaches, and the Maple Leafs have a stable of young players they can finally point to and have a sense of hope.
“It’s an exciting time, but we haven’t done anything yet,” Lamoriello said. “Yes, there’s a vision, which is real. There’s a process, which is real. There’s a plan, but we have to stick with it and not think there’s an easy way. I’m very comfortable with it, and all our people are comfortable in their own skin. This is a good environment, but we’re not there yet.”