TORONTO — Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock wanted to give 19-year-old William Nylander a test on Saturday evening, only it didn’t exactly turn out that way.
Nylander didn’t get to face the Sabres’ Calder Trophy candidate Jack Eichel as Babcock had hoped because Eichel sat with the flu. Toronto’s top rookie had a memorable night no less, scoring the first multi-point game of his NHL career in the Leafs’ 4-1 win over Buffalo.
Babcock said he wants to find out as much about Nylander as he possibly can in the final weeks of the season.
“You’ve got to play against really good players if you’re a good player and then you’ve got to be able to defend and produce against them,” Babcock said of the matchup that failed to materialize. “He’s just going to have to keep working at it and he’ll get better over time.”
Babcock was pleased with Nylander’s 15-plus minutes against Buffalo, which included his first career NHL assist and a 9-for-15 showing in the face-off circle.
Nylander opened the scoring for Toronto late in a dominant first frame, whipping “an absolute rocket”, as P.A. Parenteau described it afterward, past the right shoulder of Sabres goaltender Chad Johnson. He was left all alone in the slot by the Sabres defence, found there by Parenteau, who has found himself impressed with Nylander’s handling of expectation as a heavily hyped first-round pick.
“It can’t be easy obviously,” said the 32-year-old Parenteau. “People are expecting a lot out of this Nylander guy. He’s been delivering though. I think he’s playing great without the puck. He’s got to learn the game without it and I think he’s getting better every night.”
Babcock would have preferred not playing Nylander at centre to start his NHL career so he could grow in his play without the puck and without the challenging demands of the centre-ice position. Injuries forced him to keep Nylander down the middle where he’s had predictable ups and downs.
Shortly before scoring the third goal of his brief NHL career, which tied the score at one, Nylander turned the puck over at the defensive blue line, an error which led to a scoring chance for Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons.
“I think it’s coming every game,” Nylander said. “You start to find areas of the ice where you can make certain plays.”
Toronto scored three unanswered goals in the third frame to secure a thorough victory over Buffalo, including the second this week from Connor Carrick, who went nearly 900 days between NHL goals previously.
Also scoring in the fourth Toronto win in six games was Martin Marcincin, his first as a Leaf and second in 139 NHL games, and Milan Michalek.
The Leafs were officially eliminated from playoff contention despite the win. It’s the 10th time in 11 seasons that the club has failed to make the playoffs, though it was to be expected this year as the organization rebuilds around young players like Nylander and a haul of draft picks acquired over the past calendar year.
Toronto’s lineup featured 11 players aged 23 and under against the Sabres, the youngest group Babcock has coached in 13 NHL seasons.
Added to the mix on Saturday was 20-year-old former first-round pick Frederik Gauthier, who became the 11th Leaf to make his NHL debut this season and ninth in the past three weeks alone.
A 6-foot-5 centre and 2013 first-round pick of the Leafs, Gauthier played nearly 12 minutes, dropped eight of 11 faceoffs, drew a penalty and had an opportunity to score on a short-handed odd-man rush, opting to pass rather than shoot on a play that was broken up.
Babcock described him as being a year away from regular NHL duty prior to the game. He said it was Gauthier’s ability to keep up with the pace of the league that would determine his long-term future, delving further into the topic after the victory.
“For him to be real effective he’s got to be an elite penalty killer and dominant face-off guy and with his size there’s no reason he shouldn’t be a dominant face-off guy so he’s got to work at that,” Babcock said.
Gauthier was recalled on an emergency basis alongside fellow rookie Josh Leivo on Saturday morning. The two were needed with Peter Holland hurting, Brooks Laich out for personal reasons and Leo Komarov still unable to return from an undisclosed injury.
Toronto has played well despite its youth in recent weeks, though Babcock was careful as not to jump to conclusions.
“One of the things you have to be real careful of this time of the year is when you’re a non-playoff team over-evaluating what you have because the team playing against you some nights isn’t prepared to play,” he said.
Buffalo, for that matter, mustered only 21 shots at Leafs rookie Garret Sparks and lacked much punch until a third period which featured some chippy play between the division rivals, who will meet for the third time this month on Mar. 31.