William Nylander’s pre-season has gotten off to a good start. He looked significantly better than any player in the London Rookie Tournament, Leafs or otherwise, and his offensive instincts have somehow become even more obvious as he’s faced more difficult opponents in the pre-season. If anything, he almost looks held back by his linemates, who often aren’t expecting him to make his upper-echelon plays to get them the puck.
It’s not crazy to deem him ready for the NHL, but at the same time, the present situation might not make that the most opportune scenario for either side. This leaves the Toronto Marlies, who he spent the lattter half of last year playing for, as his likely destination. The question from there is a simple one: “What could he do with a full season?”
While far from a guarantee, there’s a distinct possibility that everybody’s favourite Calgary-born Swede could become the first teenager in the history of the American Hockey League to hit the 100 point plateau.
A Tough Choice
Before we get to the main event, it’s important to outline why this scenario puts such a skilled player back into the American Hockey League to begin with. Consider the following:
- The Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot of forwards at the moment. There are thirteen forwards currently on the roster have both proven themselves to be regular NHL players. Coincidentally, none of these players are waiver exempt. To keep Nylander up with the Leafs full-time would require a player to be sent through waivers, or it would require another trade.
- This group of thirteen don’t include Brad Boyes, Curtis Glencross, and Devin Setoguchi, who are all on Professional Tryouts at the moment. While Setoguchi is a bit of a long-shot, the former pair have looked effective in their first few days of camp, and if signed, could be turned into future assets for the team at a later time.
- It’s important for the team’s success to stockpile as many future assets as possible, and the Leafs will be looking to explore every avenue that brings them to that point moving forward.
- From a pure hockey perspective, the team would be hard-pressed to find an opportune roster spot for Nylander. Toronto already has Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak as probable first and second line centres, and Peter Holland will be breathing down their necks all year, along with multiple other full time and occasional centres. This limits Nylander’s potential minutes in his natural position. On left wing, Nylander’s fallback, he would have to compete with James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul. No matter which way you slice it, the current depth likely puts a young, skilled forward in a low minute role that often includes less offensive opportunity.
It’s also unlikely that the Leafs would use him as a temporary call-up. Take a look at what Kyle Dubas said to Kyle Cicerella regarding defenceman Stuart Percy’s see-saw 2014/15 season:
“I don’t think our process with Stu was good enough,” said Dubas, who also serves as Marlies GM. “I thought we rushed him up and he played real well and as soon as he started to struggle, we didn’t really protect him up here with his usage, so on and so forth for a 21-year-old. Then we struggled and put him right down. I don’t have anybody to blame but myself. I take the brunt of that.”
With this considered, it’s unlikely that the Leafs would do the same to nineteen-year-old that they see as one of their “crown jewels”.
Also of note is Nylander’s contract status. Because he spent his mid-teens in Europe, he’s able to play in the AHL with the same stipulations as a North American would heading to junior; his NHL contract only counts as a year burned once he plays his tenth game. If the Leafs feel that it would be advantageous to push his Entry-Level contract a year further, then keeping him down for the full season would accomplish that.
Sliding his ELC has it’s pros and cons. On the plus side, it could save you money if your team is competitive in a year where it’s been pushed along. As well, it pushes his last year of RFA status back further. But, it could cost you more money when the player is further developed in the last year of the deal and is able to produce better numbers. It’s hard to say which the Leafs would prefer.
In any event, with all of these factors considered, let’s run with the assumption that the Leafs will send him to the AHL for one more year, before making a full-time member of the Leafs in 2016/17.
A Tough Challenge
If we’re being honest with ourselves, calling for any player in the American Hockey League to score 100 points is a pretty high expectation in this day an age, let alone claiming that it’ll be done by a nineteen-year-old. As the league enters its 80th anniversary, the feat has occurred exactly 98 times, accomplished by players between the ages of 20 and 35. That’s not exactly frequent, and to add to that, nobody has done it since Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux in 2010.
To be on this list, you often needed at least one of the following qualities:
- Being part of a certain generation helped; honestly, the 100 point plateau is a relic of the AHL of old. Two-thirds (63) of these seasons occurred the 1980s and 1990s, and over half (52) were specifically in between 1983 and 1996. This was when the league was at its weakest, and dominated by players whose NHL parent clubs didn’t want to deal with the likes of the stronger IHL, and more competitive than the present ECHL.
- Teammates were a huge factor. There are multiple cases where a pair of forwards on the same line hit the mark, like the aforementioned Aucoin and Giroux. Don “Tyler’s Father” Biggs doesn’t break the single season record of 138 points without Brian Reynolds there to support him. Carolina had an entire line make the list in 1996, as did Nova Scotia in 1973. On that note…
- Teams that look beyond the development process and focus on the Calder Cup are more likely to produce these players; the Hershey Bears, for example, are on this list fourteen times, including six times in eight years from 1989 to 1996. Successful teams breed successful top-line players.
- Most of the players involved are in athletic prime age. People used to say that this was as late as 29 or 30 years old, though the stat sheets have said that 25 is the magic number in the NHL, at least as far as point production goes. The same appears to ring true here: while there is a slight surge at the age of 28, over half of the players hit the century mark no later than their age 25 season.
- More than anything, these players don’t crawl up; they take leaps. I looked at the 78 players on this list who played in the AHL in the year prior to their 100 point season, and they averaged a 29% increase in points per game. This is even more apparent in the younger ages. For example, those who scored 100 when they were 21 years old had a 60% increase in their point production, and everybody who did it at the age of 24 or younger averaged an over 40% increase.
- Interestingly enough, hot sticks aren’t the only things to point to in these scenarios. Goals definitely go up; players score with 22% more frequency, but the bigger climb is in assists, where they achieve 33% growth. This would lead one to believe that the additional offence comes from more ice time and better teammates, rather than shooting percentages (which are hard to come by for most AHL seasons).
- You obviously have to stay in the lineup as well. The players involved played an average of 73.5 games; just barely shy of a full present-day 76 game season. In fact, eleven of our players got in by scoring 100-105 points in 77+ games, which one could argue invalidates them a bit.
An Accomplishable Task
While lining up to all of the aforementioned aspects would be a tough task for Nylander, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
The Marlies aren’t a traditional “going for it” team like the Bears or the Wolves, but will likely be a the upper half of the American Hockey League this year. This is a team that went 35-15-7 in the final 57 games of the season, thanks in no small part to the rookies getting a grasp of the league and the addition of some depth to the lineup.
This year, the depth is overwhelming. The Leafs and Marlies have so many players signed that the Solar Bears will likely have to sign fewer than five of their own players to ECHL contracts, as part of Toronto’s new baseball-like development model. Jon Seitzer and I were spitballing potential lines this morning, and came to the conclusion that the Marlies have a minimum of three forward lines and two defensive pairings that could handle some form of NHL workload, be it as depth or as actual contributors in an ideal situation.
Nylander, of course, will spend the bulk of his minutes with the best of that bunch. To his left, he’ll have one of Brendan Leipsic or Connor Brown, who were both top five in rookie points-per-game last year as twenty-year-olds (Nylander, at eighteen, was first amongst those with 30+ games played). To his right, he’ll have Kasperi Kapanen, who played just four regular season games in North America last year but ended up with five points in seven playoff appearances.
Behind him, Nylander will likely have TJ Brennan and, well, whoever they feel will complement him best. Brennan is probably the best offensive defenceman in the American Hockey League, and he’s performed his best in Toronto, scoring 109 points in 114 games over the past two seasons. Brennan has shown visually (at the AHL level) and statistically (in limited NHL samples) an ability to move the play into the offensive zone, as well as an eagerness to use his booming slapshot to put the puck in, or at least closer to, the net.
Given reputation and prior success, it’s likely that Nylander will often be surrounded with three players that are capable of contributing to, if not creating offensive opportunities, to the effect of being 60-70 point players without him. That goes a long way, especially when you swap out that second defender for one of Byron Froese, Matt Frattin, or whichever of Brown/Leipsic plays on Line Two when the team goes on the powerplay. This team has the potential to score more goals than any Marlies team in history if you take him out of the equation; to think that he’s a step ahead of their talent level only adds to the excitement.
Nylander likes the cast of players that he’s been surrounded with so far. “I felt that when I came in, the group was strong. They kept together through the tough times, and once I got there, they helped me and took care of me.”
New head coach Sheldon Keefe is also unlikely to turn this team into a boring one; his Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds lead their division in goals in both of his full seasons, and their 342 tallies last year were the most by any team at the major-junior level.
Even still, Nylander would require a 52% jump in per-game production efficiency to hit 100, which is a lofty expectation. However, as previously mentioned, its the younger players that make the biggest leaps from great to elite. The most recent example of this would probably be Mike Cammalleri, who jumped from 0.95 points per game as a 21-year-old with the 03/04 Manchester Monarchs to 1.37 in the year that followed; representing a 43% climb.
That’s not as significant as a jump as Nylander needs, but it’s worth keeping in mind that he had a slow start to last season. In his first six games, he picked up just two points. In those games, he wasn’t confidently playing the style of game that he was known for. He wasn’t taking his usual risks, nor was he shooting as much as he was known to do. The points that he did tally came from picking up loose change in front of the net, and much of his ice time appeared to be spent getting a feel for the style of play in the AHL.
“I don’t think it was too bad.” Nylander said of the transition. “It’s a different style of play, so it took some time, but after a while, it went pretty well.” Pretty well might be an understatement; he picked up 30 points in the 32 games that followed, including 23 in his final 21.
The footage doesn’t lie. He began using his release more. His confidence and patience with the puck returned. His ability to sneak into lethal positions improved, which was useful for the times where there wasn’t enough room turn on the jets. You began to see a player who skated too well to be in this league, thought the offensive game a step ahead of the rest of the league, and could capitalize on opportunities better than just about anybody in the league. All of this, while being the third-youngest player in a league of hundreds of players. An offseason of training has proven to make him bigger, stronger, and more skilled; traditional hockey values would indicate that he’ll be a terror to anybody in his path. The numbers? Even more so.
Besides, making these type of leaps appears to be business as usual for Nylander. An example of this would be his time in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). In his Age 17 season, Nylander put up 7 points in 22 games; just 0.318 points. Against men, this is still very impressive (13th all time in the SHL), but a far cry from dominance. Before he jumped to the Marlies, however, he was putting up historic numbers – his 20 points in 21 games trail only Markus Naslund and Tomas Sandstrom for the highest scoring rate for an eighteen-year-old, and nearly triple what he accomplished in the prior season.
Now that Nylander has re-adjusted to the North American game, it’s not unrealistic to think that he could see the same production growth as the 20-year-olds on this list. “Playing in Sweden for half the year, then coming over to play some AHL hockey was a good learning experience for me,” said Nylander. “Hopefully it made me a better player.”
There’s a reason why many people believe that Wiliam Nylander is the best prospect in the Leafs organization, if not one of the best young players in the world. His raw talent, natural instincts, elite skating ability, and seemingly infinite levels of creativity leave him poised to become a special player in the NHL one day; it’s just unlikely that that day comes in the next couple of weeks.
The best case scenario, with all things considered, is to make Nylander the star player of the Toronto Marlies. The Leafs will, as much as they’d like to succeed, likely play the role of “asset farm” until February, so it makes more sense to place him into a winning environment with his fellow youth. They appear to have learned from the yo-yoing of the past, and will allow their prospect to commit to a spot until he looks able to take the next step on and never look back. The stars are aligning for the Winter of William to go down, so to speak.
It’ll help him further develop the creative side of his game while maximizing his minutes. He’ll get to play meaningful hockey late into the spring. He’ll likely make those who surround him better, as they learn to keep up with his skill level. He’ll put fans in the seats, pressure on management, and pressure on himself.
Thankfully, when there’s pressure on William Nylander, he usually performs historically well. Let’s see if he can do it again.
Photo Courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com
Nylander Quotes sourced from this one-on-one with Paul Hendrick / Leafs TV, July 2015