TORONTO — William Nylander is coming to North America and will be wearing blue-and-white. Beyond that, the Toronto Maple Leafs are putting on the brakes.
The Maple Leafs have recalled Nylander from his Swedish Hockey League team, MODO, and assigned him to the Marlies of the American Hockey League. Management decided that would be the best thing for the 18-year-old forward’s development and opted to make the move before the Jan. 16 deadline to bring him over from Europe.
Nylander, the Leafs’ first-round pick at No. 8 overall last year, won’t play for the Leafs at all this season, according to assistant general manager Kyle Dubas.
"We want to be patient with him," Dubas said on a conference call with reporters Monday. "I think everyone knows he’s not going to come over here and just magically storm through every level he’s at and dominate. There’s going to be an element of development to get there."
Nylander is expected to make his Marlies debut on Friday, Jan. 23 at the Hamilton Bulldogs, Dubas said. The Leafs expect some inconsistency in the play of the young Swede but want to be able to better manage his development.
The smooth-skating, skilled son of former NHL star Michael Nylander spent training camp and pre-season with the Leafs before being sent back to Sweden. He had eight goals and 12 assists in 21 games for MODO.
Dubas said MODO did such a good job of developing Nylander this season that it sped up the Leafs’ process in wanting him to move to the next stage of his career. That’s with the Marlies, where he’ll be put in offensive positions but expected to improve his defensive game.
"We’re not putting him in a situation to fail," Dubas said. "We’re giving William the resources he’ll need to succeed and we’re giving the Marlies coaching staff all the information and data that they need to help William maximize his potential here in the second half of the year."
Nylander most recently starred for Sweden at the world junior championship at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, where he was a favourite of Leafs fans in attendance. He had three goals and seven assists in seven games.
The Leafs liked a lot of what they saw from Nylander at the world juniors, but there were also some bad habits they’d like to get control of in North America, on smaller ice surfaces.
"It’s going to allow him to physically adapt on the ice to maintaining possession of the puck when under physical duress, which is important for us," Dubas said. "One thing during the world juniors that was a little bit alarming was whenever he did have the puck, he would be in a position where he was taking some physical punishment."
Nylander is listed at five-foot-11 and 169 pounds. He can avoid some contact with his speed but with less room to manoeuvre on 200-by-85-foot rinks instead of 200-by-100 ones, the team would like him to figure out how to adjust.
But the adjustment will be in the AHL with the Marlies, not in the NHL with the Leafs. The team has no plans to call him up this season.
"Our purpose of having him play with the Marlies is just so that we continue to be patient and execute a set plan with him and ensure that when the day comes that he does maximize his potential there that he’s able to come up to the Leafs and be able to be a regular in the lineup, not a guy that’s up and then down and bouncing back and forth," Dubas said.
MODO general manager Per Svartvadet said in a press release posted on the team’s website that the club had "no control" over Nylander being recalled by the Leafs.
"We are extremely proud and happy that we helped William to the player he now is," Svartvadet said.
Dubas said it was a unanimous decision among front-office members Brendan Shanahan, Dave Nonis, Mark Hunter, Brandon Pridham and himself to recall Nylander.
"I think more than anything it’ll allow him to play in a system that mimics the way we want to play and our style of play," Dubas said.