TORONTO — Had William Nylander not spent the last three weeks recovering from a concussion, the timing would be perfect.
Not necessarily for the 19-year-old to get called up by the goal-starved Toronto Maple Leafs. But for the debate to at least be raging about whether it was the right thing to do.
Consider: The Leafs, with all of five goals to show for in an ongoing five-game losing streak, have just passed the 43rd game on their schedule. That means Nylander could spend the rest of the year in the NHL from this point on without getting credit for an accrued season, which ensures he won’t be eligible for unrestricted free agency until age 27 rather than age 26.
Given the injury he suffered while representing Sweden at the world junior championship, it’s currently a moot point — although the signs are positive that his recovery is going well.
Nylander hadn’t officially been cleared for contact as of Monday, but he was said to be “close” to rejoining the American Hockey League’s Marlies for practice. That’s the next hurdle for him to clear before returning to game action.
You might recall that Nylander led the AHL in scoring when he left for Helsinki. With 34 points in 27 games after being shifted from wing to centre this fall, his play has been a source of considerable optimism for the organization during a year it has dedicated to development.
That’s meant employing a patient approach. Prior to the Leafs setting off for Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia, coach Mike Babcock indicated that no call-ups were considered to help the team solve its scoring woes.
“If you look at our team we haven’t got any offence here in the last while,” Babcock said Monday. “We’re all in this together. It’s like anything, when you’re on a real good team you get contributions from everybody: That might just be energy, that might be toughness, that might be penalty killing, but you’ve got to find a way to contribute to be a good teammate.
“That’s just part of the business.”
At 16-20-7 in a parity-filled league, the Leafs aren’t a real good team. They lack game-breakers, especially with James van Riemsdyk out for the foreseeable future with a broken left foot.
All of which brings us back to Nylander, who certainly has the potential to become one of those in the future.
There are bound to be calls at some point from those in the fanbase that want to see him in the NHL before the end of the season. It’s believed Leafs management even shared that vision — at least until Nylander suffered the Dec. 26 concussion that might end up costing him a month’s worth of games.
Now the path ahead isn’t quite so clear.
He has plenty of time to get back playing for the Marlies ahead of the NHL’s Feb. 29 trade deadline, when a couple Leafs roster spots should open up, but the logic behind calling him up then isn’t quite so sound given the way everything has unfolded.
The Leafs are now well-positioned to conduct a deadline fire sale and possibly secure a top-three lottery draft pick. Nylander will be returning from a long injury layoff to play a key role on a contending team. The fanbase seems content with the Shanaplan.
Of course, the player himself will be wondering about his potential callup — at least according to Nazem Kadri, who yo-yoed between the AHL and NHL early in his career.
“When I was down there I was always keeping tabs of how this team was doing, wondering if they needed any help,” Kadri told Sportsnet recently. “I was one phone call away, having the itch to get called up. As time went on, I kind of settled down and really just worried about playing there.”
With the only pro hockey team of any consequence in the city currently playing games at Ricoh Coliseum, that’s where Nylander’s focus belongs. The Marlies sport a league-best 31-8-2 record. They should challenge for the Calder Cup.
Any organization that errs on the side of overdevelopment is bound to make fewer mistakes.
Even though we’ve been spared the debate about Nylander’s callup for now, it’s coming soon. And when the day arrives it’s important to remember that there’s still plenty for him to be gained in the AHL.
“It’s confidence, really, especially with a player like Willy,” said Kadri. “He’s a guy that fuels off confidence. In order to maximize your potential and your skill level, you need that.
“I’m sure he’s going to get a shot here some way or another.”
It’s going to take some time yet, and in the big picture that’s not a bad thing at all.