TORONTO – Options? William Nylander has a few.
In the event the Toronto Marlies crash out of the Calder Cup playoffs a little earlier than expected this spring, the 19-year-old can basically count on an invite to the IIHF World Hockey Championship after his finest performance as a NHL player.
That’s because Swedish national team coach Par Marts embarked on a whirlwind trans-Atlantic trip to come see what all of the hype is about, and found himself with a fantastic seat for Monday’s three-point performance.
“He had an excellent game,” Marts told Sportsnet.
Indeed, Nylander was a force during a 5-2 victory over the Calgary Flames – setting up linemates P.A. Parenteau and Zach Hyman for a goal apiece before taking advantage of a Hyman screen to beat Jonas Hiller with the eventual game-winner.
That trio dominated Calgary’s second line by controlling more than 64 per cent of even-strength shot attempts and had coach Mike Babcock feeling confident enough to send them out for plenty of faceoffs in their own zone.
“I thought their line was good and I thought (Nylander) was good defensively,” said Babcock. “He backchecked hard, turned some pucks over, was good on D-zone faceoffs. Those things are what matters to me more than the other stuff – the other stuff we know that he has that.”
Marts and his assistant, Peter Popovic, flew to North America expressly to see Nylander play in person. The longtime Swedish national team coach said “you can’t just watch TV or listen to what other people say. I must see them in action, that’s the key.”
The two men chatted with Nylander outside the Maple Leafs' dressing room after Monday’s game, but will only get that close to him again this season if the AHL-leading Marlies are ousted from the playoffs in the first or second round.
With the world championship set to run from May 6-22 in Russia, he’ll be tied up should they advance beyond that point. And they’ll be expected to.
“After the (NHL) season I’ll go down with the Marlies and whatever happens, happens,” said Nylander. “Right now my focus is here in Toronto.”
It would be hard to imagine his first 12 NHL games going much better. The teenager is clearly growing more confident and now has four goals and seven points to show for his efforts.
When Babcock sits down for meetings with him, he sees a player that wants to be “great” – and the coach is pretty clear about what it will take for that to eventually happen.
“What’s going to decide that for him is just the amount of drive he has to do all of the little things right,” said Babcock. “To train, to eat, to live. He’s got ability and he seems to be comfortable with himself. I mean he’s a kid – let’s not kid ourselves – it takes time in this league to be a man and to be a player.”
What has been most interesting about his first couple weeks in the league is how quickly the Leafs have grown comfortable with him at centre. Early on Babcock made it clear that he would have preferred to ease Nylander’s transition by deploying him as a winger, but he’s now vowing to keep the teenager in the middle for the rest of this season.
It’s a pretty strong vote of confidence for the kid, who believes he’s starting to “get a little feel” for the position at this level.
“I mean you’re playing against more skilled players all over the ice,” said Nylander. “You’ve just got to be ready for anything. They’re always thinking like you are. It’s a little different from the AHL.”
There will be a serious height, weight and experience gap to be bridged there.
“The matchups probably won’t be very pretty some nights,” said Babcock. “It’ll be hard work. … You’re going to get out there every shift against men and figure out how hard it is to have the puck.”
But it is here where we can find a little wisdom from Marts.
The Swedish coach was comfortable with it being known ahead of time that he was taking an eight-hour flight to come see Nylander play because he wanted to see how he might react to the situation.
“I didn’t mind the pressure because he’ll have to take that his whole career,” said Marts. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
On this occasion, he passed with flying colours.