Nylander’s skill gives Leafs cause to think small

William Nylander shared his excitement and his nerves going into his preseason debut with the Leafs, how the atmosphere is different from Sweden and his happiness scoring that late goal.

When it comes to the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs, maybe it’s time to think small.

Take William Nylander, for example.

Nothing says the Brian Burke era is over like the selection of the under-sized Swede with the No. 8 pick in the 2014 draft.

The 18-year-old scored his first NHL(ish) goal on Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre, using his quick hands and willingness to sneak around the paint to pick the pocket of Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Nick Schultz. He nearly scored another on a similar play as he stole the puck from 6-foot-6 rookie Samuel Morin and showed great patience in trying to outwait Flyers goalie Steve Mason.

He was the game’s smallest player, but it’s second star.

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It hardly signals that he’s bound for the big club. The betting is he’ll head back to Sweden for another year playing and training with Modo.

But it’s hard not to get excited at the idea of the Leafs shifting emphasis from the "200 pounds and up" era at the draft table with limited results in the form of departed or yet-to-arrive first-rounders like Luke Schenn, Tyler Biggs, Stuart Percy or Fredrik Gauthier – to a skills-first focus.

Arguably the most impactful Leafs pick of the past 10 years is Nazem Kadri – hardly a bruiser – so why not opt for skill over size (when you have to choose) in a league that is getting faster all the time and where goals will always be a premium?

What have you got to lose?

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But the challenges he might face in staying with the big club this season or being an impact player in the NHL in the years to come were more evident in practice the other day.

The Leafs lined up for some battle drills and Nylander – who in person seems a bit shorter that the 5-foot-11 he’s listed at, but perhaps a little thicker than the 169 pounds he’s given credit for – drew the privilege of going up against 230-pound Roman Polak.

As mismatches go we’re talking kicker versus linebacker; or car door versus fingers.

Nylander got to the puck first, which didn’t bother Polak. The Leafs’ new defenceman put his right hand on Nylander’s pants, gave a quick heave and appeared to lift the rookie off the ice like a grizzly bear might pluck a salmon from a fast-moving river.

With roles reversed Nylander fared no better: Polak spun to protect the puck and in the process put his ample rump in Nylander’s chest and again the teenaged Swede was sent skittering across the ice.

That was all Leafs’ veteran Joffery Lupul had to see.

"I said ‘come here, maybe you should go against me.’ I didn’t think that was a good match-up for him right now," Lupul said with a laugh. "And plus I didn’t want to go against Roman either, so it worked out."

It worked out for Nylander; the first time up against Lupul he was first to the puck, fed it between Lupul’s skates and snuck it five-hole, all in the blink of an eye, drawing whoops and stick taps from the rest of the group.

"That was lucky," Nylander said.

No it wasn’t, but neither was getting sent sprawling by Polak unlucky. The two battles were Nylander and the Leafs’ conundrum in a nutshell: With a bit of room, he already has the skill to make NHL players look silly; the challenge is getting that room, and what happens when he doesn’t.

"I don’t think skill will be an issue," says Leafs general manager Dave Nonis. "He’s quickly shown that his skill set will allow him to play at his level – and we’re talking elite skill. It’s all the other things, it’s the strength, the size. It’s different going against first-year pros and Zdeno Chara … he’s never going to win that battle of strength, so how do you adjust so you don’t have to win that battle? Is there another way to approach that situation?"

The first step might be taking a cue from Lupul, and that’s not picking those fights in the first place. Trying to go shoulder-to-shoulder with guys who will always be bigger and stronger is a losing proposition.

"He has all the tools, it’s not like he has to work on this or that, he just needs to get more experience and a little stronger … he’s pretty light but in today’s day and age some guys can get by doing that," Lupul said. "I see [Philadelphia Flyers centre] Claude Giroux. Right-hand shot, head up all the time; a playmaker who can probably score some goals. It’s just been a few days, but he’ll get a chance to compete against some big strong NHL defenceman in pre-season, but you want guys on your team with as much skill as possible, and he certainly has that."

The irony is that the Leafs’ biggest, strongest player might be Nylander’s biggest believer. Polak has built his career on being able to overpower the opposition’s forwards. His specialty is squishing them on the wall and stopping their efforts to cycle the puck on the spot.

But he doesn’t see fresh meat when he matches up with Nylander in practice. He sees Patrick Kane or Martin St. Louis. He feels trepidation at the thought of holding down smaller, quicker players who have all the tools to make him miss his check.

"I think he’s strong enough and if he’s smart, he won’t have any trouble playing in the NHL," Polak said. "Guys like him, they’re clever and they’re shifty and they use your strength against you. They know you want to hit them and they spin off you and make a great move. It doesn’t matter how strong you are in this league, it’s how smart you are and can you use it in a game."

The Leafs are going to give Nylander plenty of chances to try, and the rookie is open to figuring out what he can and can’t get away with along the way.

"I want to win that battle, but going against some of the stronger guys I can just try my hardest, sometimes I’ll fall or whatever, it will happen," he says. "But you have to find a way to outsmart the opponent … you have to go in with a plan to come out with the puck."

Can he make those kinds of plans against NHL players? Can he execute them on the fly?

Those are the questions, because if Nylander can get the puck on his stick, there is no doubt the Leafs can think big.

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