Rather, the 19-year-old would be lining up on the wing as other top young centres do in their early days in the league, such as Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin and Sabres rookie Sam Reinhart presently. But because of injuries at the position Mike Babcock doesn’t really have much of a choice currently with one of the team’s top prospects.
“Who would play in the middle?” Babcock said of moving Nylander to the wing after a Tuesday afternoon practice. “That was my plan and I had this great plan and it looked good on a napkin. That was what I was going to do with him for sure because it’s way easier.
“This is a different situation,” he added. “We don’t have centres.”
The Leafs are missing Tyler Bozak to an upper-body injury that’s kept him out more than a month and Byron Froese to a broken hand. Insert both into the lineup alongside Nazem Kadri and Peter Holland and Nylander would likely be playing wing right now instead of centre where he’s had some predictable struggles.
“It’s a jump, of course,” Nylander said. “You’ve got a lot of stuff to worry about playing centre.”
Mostly, it’s the expanded responsibility in the defensive zone. Centres just need to do more work when playing without the puck, primary in why NHL head coaches prefer starting their youngest talents at wing where the duties are less.
Babcock was already looking ahead to the Leafs matchup with the Islanders on Wednesday and the challenges at centre-ice they’ll present Nylander, the eighth overall pick in the 2014 Draft.
Beyond those issues, the Leafs coach also wants to see a more consistent competition level from Nylander. He showed him video of top two-way centres Jonathan Toews and David Krejci to hammer that lesson home.
“Those are star players,” Babcock said. “That’s how hard they compete. And so in the end if you want your game to match your skill-set you’ve got to compete pretty hard in this league.”
Similar to Nylander in terms of skill, Kadri started his NHL career on the wing under then-Leafs coach Ron Wilson. He described it as hugely beneficial to his development.
“It just got me more familiar with the pace and how things were done,” Kadri said.
Still, he paid attention then to the kinds of things he should and shouldn’t do when he eventually moved back to the middle.
Kadri says he watched film constantly, too. He knew he was ready to make the jump back to centre after his first couple NHL stints, about 50-60 games.
The Leafs, at least for now, won’t have that luxury, though they seem likely to be capable of doing so next season.
Toronto actually had Nylander play the wing last season when he first made the jump from Sweden to North America. The club moved him back to his natural position of centre to start this American Hockey League season and intends to have him there long-term.
Nylander, for his part, has quickly noticed the demands of the position at the NHL level. It’s not so much the opponents are bigger and stronger, he says, but smarter, craftier and infinitely more talented. More attention to defence is required.
“What happens is that you end up playing more defence because when I was in the Marlies I wasn’t really playing defence,” Nylander said. “In the AHL you’d get the puck and you’d keep it within the team and not really so much have to chase it or worry about the other team having it.”
There’s also the demands of duelling NHL centres in the faceoff circle. Nylander was won 45 per cent of his draws there so far.
Kadri saw firsthand how Jack Eichel, another teenage centre, struggled with the defensive demands of the job in a Monday night matchup with the Buffalo Sabres.
In advising Nylander, Kadri said he’d recommend not being lured by offence as much as possible. Don’t cheat, he said, and don’t leave your wingers hanging.
“Obviously in the middle it’s better for guys like us just because you get the puck a little more often and you get more touches and you feel more involved in the game,” Kadri said. “But it’s also much more responsibility. You’ve got to play goal-line to goal-line and up against some pretty challenging centremen.”
“Everything’s just a step up and you’ve just got to get prepared for it,” Nylander said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on, but you just try to play your game.”