TORONTO — So now, we see.
As top prospect William Nylander joined the Toronto Marlies for his first practice on Monday morning, there was very little hint about what to expect. No assigned position in the lineup, no guarantee he’ll be given big minutes, just a confirmation that he’ll make his American Hockey League debut in Hamilton on Friday night.
Marlies coach Gord Dineen chose his words carefully when greeted by the largest scrum of reporters he’s faced since taking the job.
Even Nylander — a supremely confident kid who more than held his own against men in Sweden this fall — didn’t really offer up much in terms of predictions. However, it was clear that he’s thrilled to be back in Toronto, where he has the best opportunity to impress the Maple Leafs brass.
“Being over here now, they get to see you and watch you every day,” Nylander said. “They don’t watch you that often over there. It’s good to be over here and probably get some eyes on you sometimes.”
There are those inside the organization that quietly believe Nylander will have his eyes opened in the weeks ahead. Still just 18 years old, he is one of only four players from his draft class already playing pro hockey in North America, and he still has some growing to do.
The speed and skill that made him the eighth overall pick were evident during the recent world junior championship and in some of the highlight-reel goals he scored in Sweden prior to that.
How quickly he grasps the defensive duties that come with playing centre while adapting to a more physical game remains to be seen.
Viktor Loov, the Marlies defenceman who played alongside Nylander with MODO last year, believes the transition will be quick.
“He’s always scoring points as you can see in the world juniors,” said Loov. “I think he had points in almost every game when he came over. He’s used to the (smaller North American) rinks. I think he knows the game. Probably there’s more skilled players in this team that he can play with, too.
“I think the points will come.”
The challenge for Dineen and his coaching staff will be helping Nylander become a responsible two-way player. Even though the Canadian-born Swede grew up playing minor hockey in North America, there is a belief that his recent time on the larger international ice surface has led to him taking long looping strides.
That will need to change before he sees a regular shift in the NHL.
“He’s a guy that’s got great speed,” said Dineen. “In the smaller rinks, there might be a little bit more of the stopping and starting. Certainly in the defensive zone. …
“You have to have that stop-start mentality in this type of game.”
Ultimately, these type of adjustments take time.
Everyone from Ryan Getzlaf (28) to Corey Perry (23) to P.K. Subban (84) to Ryan Johansen (50) played games in the AHL before developing into impact players. Heck, current Leafs centre Nazem Kadri appeared in 130 games for the Marlies before taking a full-time job at Air Canada Centre.
While there is still an outside chance Nylander dresses for the Leafs at some point before the end of the year, he can’t play more than nine games without triggering the first year of his entry-level contract.
Every indication from top members of the organization is that they’re prepared to be patient. Management is most anxious to see how Nylander can handle getting hit — something Loov identified as an area where his friend will have to grow as well.
“(There is less) space on the ice,” he said. “I think you also play against a lot meaner players. They’re harder here, you get cross-checked and stuff.
“He needs to get used to that.”
That isn’t to suggest Nylander wasn’t seeing some physical play with MODO, where he was averaging more than 19 minutes a game and often found himself targeted by opponents. The team even took the usual step of signing 42-year-old Donald Brashear to help protect him.
With the Leafs facing a deadline last week to bring Nylander to North America for the remainder of the year, they decided it was best to take more direct control over his development.
He was more than happy to oblige.
“Whenever you get called back you’ve always got to have positive thoughts,” said Nylander. “I think this will help me develop as a player. It will be good for me to play here.”
It certainly helps that he already knows a lot of the Marlies from prospects camp and the rookie tournament last summer, and has moved in with Loov for the remainder of the season.
Those two were reacquainted over the weekend and it didn’t take Nylander long to make his presence felt in the condo.
“The thing is now I have to cook for two,” said Loov, cracking a smile. “Right now he’s downloading games on his Xbox, so he’s using all of the internet. I can’t even watch a three-minute video on YouTube so I’m screwed right now.”
These guys are young, man. It’s easy to forget that.
At some point soon, the hockey talk in Toronto will inevitably turn to why Nylander needs to join the Maple Leafs right away, but everyone should keep in mind that the long view is usually the best one in these situations.
“Hopefully it’s the last step to the NHL,” said Nylander. “That’s something we’ll have to wait and see.”