When the Toronto Maple Leafs brought 2014 first-rounder William Nylander over from Sweden last month, they were giving the talented teen a chance to escape a bit of a gong show with his Modo team back home, while also learning the rigors of the North American game in the AHL.
Five games and two points into his career with the Toronto Marlies and Nylander is still adjusting.
“It’s getting better,” he said. “A little more time and it will be like normal.”
Which is perfect. The Leafs have maintained that they don’t intend on rushing the gifted left winger’s development and if Nylander needed any proof of the plan, he only needed to look across the ice at one of his opponents on Wednesday during a day-time clash with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Teemu Pulkkinen has scorched the AHL for Grand Rapids this season and with two goals against the Marlies in that contest (the Griffins won 3-1) he upped his totals to 26 goals and 50 points in 39 games, making him the leading scorer in the league.
Drafted in the fourth round by Detroit in 2010, the Finnish right winger is putting on a show in his second full season with the Griffins and is proving that old Detroit adage that slow and steady wins the development race. There are some definite parallels between Pulkkinen and Nylander, even if the latter was a lottery pick and the former is four years older.
When Pulkkinen was drafted, the Red Wings saw a player who could score with flair, but needed to round out his game. He's not the biggest player at 5-foot-10, 183 pounds, but when you watch Pulkkinen now, you'll find a scrappy winger who goes to the tough areas and harasses opposition puck-carriers in an effort to get back possession. And he still has that hard, heavy shot that made him enticing in the first place.
In Nylander, Toronto has a similarly-sized player (listed at 5-foot-11, 174 pounds right now) with fantastic natural gifts: the Swedish teen is fast and incredibly creative with the puck – on several occasions against Grand Rapids, he would make smart plays that created offensive chances, though for one reason or another his teammates couldn't bury them for goals. But he's obviously not a complete player yet at 18 years of age.
“He has good vision out there and when he’s moving his feet he creates a lot," said Marlies coach Gord Dineen. "He just has to figure out a little more of the structure that we play. He’s on a learning curve and we expect him to make mistakes, but he’s going to get there.”
Culturally, Nylander hasn't had much of an issue in North America. The son of ex-NHLer Michael Nylander, William was born in Calgary and played youth hockey in Chicago and Maryland. And those scary bedtime stories about AHL bus travel that are passed down from veterans to rookies? A bit overblown, if you ask him.
“To be honest, I’ve heard the longest bus ride for us is eight hours," Nylander said. "Back home in Sweden you could drive 11 hours, 14 hours, so it’s not that big of a difference.”
Right now the biggest adjustment is on the ice. With Modo, Nylander had 20 points in 21 games and is still tied for second in team scoring despite the fact his former teammates have now played twice as many games (the team is facing relegation and was getting picked on so much that they signed ex-NHL enforcer Donald Brashear recently). And that was against men in the Swedish League. Grand Rapids defensemen such as Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul did a great job of making life uncomfortable for Nylander in the Wednesday tilt, using physical play and positioning to thwart some of his charges. But he will have to fight through such barriers from here on out; the AHL and Sweden are quite different.
“It’s hard to compare," Nylander said. "It’s a lot more down-and-back, a lot of north-south. Back home it’s a little more east-west.”
And east-west can be great if you incorporate north-south. Pulkkinen has learned that in Grand Rapids, which helps account for his success. Which is why he can be a great role model for Nylander and an example of what time in the minors can reap for even the most skilled prospect.