PHILADELPHIA – One year ago at the NHL draft in Newark, the
Maple Leafs picked Frederik Gauthier with their first selection, a
hulking centre with likely third-line potential and a low offensive
They swung for a much higher fence with the eighth overall pick on
Friday night, landing the "electrifying" William Nylander from Sweden. A
speedy, highlight-reel winger, he is the son of longtime NHL centre
Michael Nylander and the first European Toronto has drafted in the first
round since Jiri Tlusty in 2006. Nylander is also the first draft pick
of the Brendan Shanahan era and an injection of homegrown game-breaking
ability, long-starved within the Leaf organization.
"Hes got high, high-end skill," gushed general manager Dave Nonis,
shortly after the pick was made. And that fills a need within the
prospect ranks of the organization, considerably deprived over the
years. Though hopeful that the likes of Carter Verhaeghe, Connor Brown
and Andreas Johnson may eventually make an impact of sorts with the big
club, the Leafs simply did not boast a game-breaker with Nylanders
ceiling beyond the NHL club (and have not historically).
They havent landed many at all from the draft.
Vincent Damphousse, picked sixth overall in 1986, was the last homegrown
player to register at least 80 points in a season as a Leaf. Toronto
has, additionally, sent only two homegrown players to the All-Star game
in the past 20 years, neither of whom was a forward (Tomas Kaberle and
Felix Potvin). Dealing first round picks – as they did five times from
2003-2011 – certainly didnt help the matter.
Nylander may or may not make it, but he, at the very least, represents
the kind of high upside, homegrown talent the organization has mostly
lacked, especially up front – Nazem Kadri, who scored 20 goals as a
23-year-old last season, was a recent exception. Nonis wouldnt go as far
as to say that adding skill was a priority, but labeled it "an area of
weakness". "He might be the most skilled player in the draft," said the
Leafs GM of Nylander. Nonis saw that skill firsthand at the Under-18
tournament in Finland this past April. Nylander, playing for Sweden,
led all players with 16 points in seveen games, notching six goals along
the way.dddddddddddd As a teenager, he spent part of last season in
Swedens top league, totaling a goal and seven points in 22 games –
notable given his age and size (5-foot-11, 169 pounds).
"He has NHL speed, NHL hands, an NHL shot right now," Nonis said. "Its
whether or not the rest of his game can catch up." Unwilling to pay Dale
Tallons price for the first overall pick and rights to draft Aaron
Ekblad, Nonis said he actually considered moving down if one of two
players – Nylander among them – wasnt there to be had with the eighth
pick. Nylander grew up around the NHL, his father totaling 920 NHL games
for seven different teams. That kept the younger Nylander in North
America until the age of 14 when he moved to Sweden, eventually playing
alongside his 40-year-old dad last year (with Rogle in the second-tier
league). "I like to score goals and make plays," Nylander said,
projecting an aura of confidence and cool, noticeably unfazed by all
that surrounded him.
A free agent and thus able to come to North America next year if he and
the organization so choose, Nylander will audition for the Leafs in the
fall. "Hell definitely have a chance to make our team," Nonis said.
"[But] I really dont care how skilled you are, its very difficult to
make the NHL as an 18-year-old. I think itd be a long shot for him to do
that, but hes going to be given that opportunity and if hes good enough
to stick and play and contribute then we would keep him. If not, well
decide at that point whether its best to keep him over in North America
or to have him go back to Sweden to play in the Elite League."
Nylander boasts a "VERY high ceiling" according to Mark Seidel, chief
scout for North American Central Scouting, but has been trailed by
attitude questions, something Nonis brushed aside as outward confidence.
Like most draftees, the new Leaf prospect will have to get bigger and
stronger before he is likely to make the leap to the NHL, additionally
requiring some acclimation to the North American ice surface.
"It may take him a month to acclimate, it might take him over a year – I
dont know that," said Nonis. "But the skill-set is very high end."