October 20, 2015
TORONTO – William Nylander’s teammates have one task to complete when they are on the ice.
Get the highly-regarded Maple Leafs prospect the puck.
“I want the puck every time I’m on the ice, I think that’s when I’m the biggest threat to the other team,” said Nylander after the Toronto Marlies’ 3-2 overtime victory over the Albany Devils on Saturday.
The 19-year-old forward has had a strong start to the season, leading the Marlies with two goals and three assists in four games. He is currently playing alongside prospect Connor Brown on the club’s top line, on the first power-play unit that employs four forwards and during 3-on-3 overtime.
In each situation, Nylander has displayed an ability to create scoring opportunities for teammates, while also carrying the puck on some end-to-end rushes.
“I liked that he gets the puck with a lot of speed through the middle of the ice, you see when that happens he’s creative and things happen,” said Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe. “For us as a team we have to find a way to get (the puck) to him more often.”
Nylander showed his playmaking ability on Saturday, slowing down at the opposition’s left face-off dot and finding trailing defenceman Justin Holl for a scoring chance. Holl was stopped by Albany goaltender Yann Danis, but Nylander moved to the front of the net and banged in the rebound for his second goal of the campaign.
After being selected eighth overall by the Maple Leafs in 2014, Nylander is spending this season transitioning to the centre position.
Even though he played mostly up the middle for MODO of the Swedish Hockey League, Toronto opted to use Nylander primarily on the wing when he joined the Marlies last January after playing for Sweden at the 2015 World Junior Tournament.
In 37 games with the Marlies, Nylander recorded 14 goals and 32 points – the highest point-per-game average of any American Hockey League rookie to dress in that many games.
The main reasons the organization chose to move him back to centre was so he could control more of the play and be the man to breakout with the puck and run the offence.
“He’s shown what he’s capable of doing. Once he got comfortable (last season) and started adapting, he showed what he could do,” said Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas, who also serves as Marlies GM. “We think he’s capable of playing centre, we’re excited about that. If anything, it adds versatility to his arsenal. We know he can play wing.”
Nylander has made an early impact this year at the new position, but his game is still a work-in-progress. The Calgary-born Swede is trying to improve his ability in the face-off circle, saying it’s something he needs to give extra attention.
“I think (the transition) has been good, I played centre at MODO last year, going back and forth a bit,” said Nylander. “I like it a lot, I just got to get my draws going a little bit. (I’m) taking draws against guys who’ve done it a few years so it’s good experience.”
In Saturday’s victory, Nylander won only six of 15 draws. After losing three in a row in the offensive zone, Keefe moved him to the wing so that the more experienced Byron Froese could take the faceoff late in the third period. Froese won it and ended up scoring the tying goal to force overtime with Nylander picking up an assist.
“He’s got to bare down and be better in the face-off dot,” said Keefe. “He was good the first game, not so much the past two… It’s coming.”
All of Nylander’s draws were taken either in neutral zone or the opposition’s end. In the first period, he lined up for one faceoff in the defensive zone, but was waived out. The small sample size points towards selective zone starts, but Keefe says that it was coincidental when playing four lines and that the club isn’t trying to shield him from the defensive end. They want to play him in all situations and he could see time on the penalty kill.
“One of the things with William, we aren’t really looking to protect him, sometimes things happen with the flow of the bench,” said Keefe. “We need to put him in tough spots. Willy needs to be in some tough spots to find his way through it.”
The five-foot-11, 189-pound Nylander plays with confidence. Any faults in his game are being fine-tuned in the minors and Dubas thinks his attitude bodes well for him while doing it at the Ricoh Coliseum.
“He has a certain amount of belief in himself, as he should,” said Dubas. “He’s got tremendous ability, when you have that ability you’re going to be confident.”
Toronto management has continuously preached patience and time with all of the club’s prospects and Nylander is no different. A full year in the AHL seems the likely course of action to allow the young centre to work on his craft, while the organization continues through its early stages of a rebuild.
“It’ll be up to William to decide if it’s a full year (with the Marlies) or not,” said Dubas.