After an unimaginably bleak stretch that spanned a decade, the Toronto Maple Leafs affected a turnaround and gave their glory-starved fans something to cheer about last spring. While the focus of attention fell, rightly, on Auston Matthews, the first-overall pick in 2016 draft and the Calder Trophy winner, the rebirth started a couple of years before that with the selection of another first-rounder, William Nylander. In fact, the NHL named Nylander the Rookie of the Month in October and in March, while Matthews and fellow Leafs freshman Mitch Marner won the honors once each in mid-season.
In Young Leafs, I track the building of a Maple Leafs team that looks poised to be a contender in the Eastern Conference for years to come and is already one of the most exciting teams in the league. If Nylander doesn’t turn out to be the most important piece acquired by the management team that came in after Brian Burke, he was still the first — a bold and clean break from the former GM’s antiquated vision of the game.
William Nylander first appeared on Toronto’s radar at NHL Central Scouting’s combine in the city back in the spring of 2014. He was a player of interest, a guaranteed first-rounder, the second-ranked European player on Central Scouting’s list. He had lived up to that billing at the world under-18 championships weeks earlier when he led the tournament in scoring. He was also a compelling story. His father, Michael, not only had played more than 900 games in the league with six NHL teams but also played with his son on Rogle in the Swedish Elite League that season. And even if you didn’t know him by name or by reputation, even if you didn’t care about hockey at all, William Nylander got everyone’s attention whenever he walked into a room — with his self-assured sense of presence and a head of hair that borrowed equally from Prince Valiant and the boy band of your choice, he had to be somebody. The top-ranked European player in that draft class, Kasperi Kapanen, noted, “Girls want their photo with him. We just hold the camera.”
Even without the pedigree and the look, the younger Nylander would have gained attention with his play as a junior. At 16, he played a handful of games against proven pros with Sodertalje in the SEL. The year he became a full-time pro, splitting the season between Sodertalje, Modo, and Rogle, he scored 16 goals in 57 games. He had no holes in his skill set; he was elite in every facet of the offensive game. There was only one red flag, and it was one that he had no control over: his father.
In his long NHL career, Michael Nylander had crossed paths with many of the NHL executives and scouts who were evaluating his son, and Michael Nylander hadn’t made a great impression on many of them. In the opinion of one NHL scout who had played with him, “He was a talented guy but a me-first type, selfish. He wasn’t a coach killer, but he wasn’t committed to the team concept. If he gets his goals, gets his contract . . . whatever he can get out of it.”
Another who played with Michael called him “the worst teammate I ever had . . . it was always all about him.”
That Michael played for himself was a common view. Not that he was poison in the dressing room — it was just that he wasn’t what guys thought of as a good soldier, not even a soldier for hire, or a teammate first.
Some in hockey were tempted to paint William with the same brush. “Could the apple fall far from the tree?” they wondered. Some others who were ready to give William a fairer shake would admit to concerns about his father’s influence. Teams like to have a player’s complete attention and not compete with a parent or agent or anyone else who might offer a second opinion.
William Nylander impressed everyone who watched him in physical testing at the combine. “A pure athlete who wasn’t even physically mature yet, lots of room for growth,” said one NHL team’s director of scouting. Check marks beside: height (a half inch under six feet); power (second in a group of more than 100 players in anaerobic testing); lower-body squat strength (in the 90th percentile in the test group); and fitness (up in the 80th percentile). Scouts didn’t worry too much that he weighed only 172 pounds, 17 less than the average prospect, because they saw that he had the frame to pack on more useful weight and gain more strength. Nylander managed only one rep on the bench press, but that was really comic relief for the scouts looking on. He already had a heavy shot, pro quality, and if he were to gain strength, it would become that much heavier. The bottom line: He wasn’t yet physically ready to step into the NHL, not at 18, but scouts could easily project him there in a season or two.
Prospects’ interviews with teams are a mixed bag — no young player has talked his way onto a club, although a few have hurt their chances when talking with teams. Everything is open to interpretation and scouts’ predispositions. Scouts have a unique talent for talking themselves into supposedly character-challenged players and out of reputed Boy Scouts. William Nylander’s interviews were a priority for teams with picks in the top 15 at the draft, mostly because of their views of his father.
One scout who gave Nylander high grades based on performance came away from the combine pegging him as aloof and “really full of himself.” The scout mentioned that he spotted Nylander wearing jeans and sneakers but no shirt and walking with a bunch of prospects over to a restaurant down the street from the hotel, stuff that passes for rock stars but not NHL players.
Another scout who knew Michael was willing to give both son and father the benefit of the doubt.
“He was pretty much the kid I thought he would be. He grew up around NHL arenas, so he knows the drill. Polite, considered his answers, didn’t tell you what he thought you wanted to hear. Talking to him, I didn’t get the idea that he was aware of his father’s reputation around the league. I asked him if he liked the game — you know, it’s a problem if a kid is just doing it because his father pushed him into it. That wasn’t the case, though. I thought he was pretty genuine about loving the game and just being around the arena. At the end of the day, you have to say that maybe [Michael] was a pain in the ass, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his kid’s best interests in mind.”
The Leafs weren’t going to tip their hand about their interview with William Nylander. Back in 2014, the head of their amateur scouting department was Dave Morrison, a man who had overseen the Leafs’ drafts for a decade and had taken a lot of criticism from fans. Under his direction, the Leafs’ scouting team made at least a couple of home-run picks — Tuukka Rask and Alexander Steen — who were traded away for laughable returns. In the 2006 draft, the Leafs selected seven players, and six of them went on to play more than 100 games in the NHL, including Leo Komarov, taken in the sixth round, 180th overall. And the Leafs’ worst recent pick was one that Morrison had been overruled on by then-GM Brian Burke — the team had traded two second-round picks to move up to No. 21 in the first round and select Tyler Biggs, a forward who, after he was drafted, was a frequent healthy scratch with the Marlies, was sent along to Pittsburgh in the Kessel trade, and seemed likely never to play an NHL game.
In the 2014 NHL draft, Morrison was free of Burke, but he might not have had an entirely free hand. But he did still plan for the Leafs to take “a big swing” at the draft.
The Leafs never would have called William Nylander’s name if Brian Burke had stuck around. But whatever the Leafs management thought about Michael Nylander’s perceived issues clearly paled in comparison to his son’s skill, and the Leafs selected William with the eighth overall draft pick. Fans and the media viewed it as a clean break, a shift from the franchise paradigm under Brian Burke. They still didn’t mind hyping the selection, mind you — a seeming carryover from Burke claiming that Morgan Rielly was the top-ranked player of his draft class in the Leafs’ books. “[Nylander] might be the most skilled player in the draft,” GM Dave Nonis said.
Not that he was walking back his estimation, but in the next breath Nonis made it sound highly unlikely that Nylander was going to line up with the big club that season. “He’ll get a chance to show us what he can do in training camp,” he said.
You could read into Nonis’s demeanor that, at some level, he knew that Nylander’s future with the Leafs was going to be brighter and longer-lived than his own.
Copyright © 2017 by Gare Joyce. From the forthcoming book to be published by Simon and Schuster Canada, Inc. Printed by permission.
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