William 'Willie' Nylander was a polarizing draft choice for the Toronto Maple Leafs at No. 8 overall last June. Some, myself included, praised the pick because of Nylander's high ceiling. Others slammed the Leafs for grabbing King Joffrey on skates, a slick-stickhandling boy-man whose body would not hold up the NHL level. That latter group likely wanted a Nick Ritchie type at No. 8.
So far, score one for the Nylander backers.
Yes, the fact he returned to the Swedish League to re-sign with Modo suggested he was far from NHL-ready. He flashed skill but didn't show enough strength to play for the Leafs, and they didn't want to tempt themselves by keeping him with the American League's Marlies, from which they could easily rush him to the big club. But he's been nothing short of spectacular in the SHL, where his primary goal was to bulk up. A tweet from Domenic Galamini suggested Nylander's 14 points through 10 games as an 18-year-old put him in elite company. Digging through the SHL's complete records reveals that Nylander averages more points per game than anyone in Swedish League history during an age-18 season. He's at 1.4, and the next closest finished at 1.00, meaning he'll challenge for the record even if he regresses.
And oh, the company Nylander keeps. The next best 18-year-old phenoms, in order: Markus Naslund (1.00), Tomas Sandstrom, (1.00), Daniel Sedin (0.84), Niklas Andersson (0.81), Thomas Steen (0.74), Peter Forsberg (0.72), Henrik Sedin (0.69). Further down the list are names like Mikael Renberg, Mats Sundin and Anze Kopitar (yep, he played in the Swedish League. Now you know why he's so good). Maintaining the pace wouldn't just make Nylander special for his age, either. At 1.40 points per game, he'd post the SHL's best mark since Kristian Huselius hit 1.44 as a 26-year-old man during the 2004-05 lockout. Nylander would own the second-best mark of the last 20 years. Sure, it's early, but the numbers remind us of how dominant the youngster is so far.
It's easy to write off Nylander's numbers and wonder if he can produce that way in North America, but the SHL is among the top three or four leagues on the planet, and he's doing it against men. If and when Nylander accompanies Sweden across the Atlantic for the World Junior Championship in Toronto and Montreal next month, we'll get a strong sense of how rapidly he's improved. He's already shown a flair for international competition, having scorched the under-18s for 16 points in seven games.
See if he passes your eye test in this montage. The setup around the 35-second mark is a thing of beauty. You might want to mute it the video, though:
So for any Leaf fan wishing Nylander had stayed in the NHL right away, this is a friendly reminder he's developing nicely. He still needs to bulk up and shore up his defensive game, as he tries to do too much at times and is prone to turnovers. But he sure looks promising. Don't be surprised if he finishes at or near the top of THN's next edition of Future Watch, which comes out early in 2015.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin