In Greek mythology, Atlas was condemned by Zeus to bear the weight of the heavens on his shoulders for all of eternity. A pretty harsh punishment for one little indiscretion if you ask me. It could have been worse I suppose. After all, he will never know the suffering of eternally optimistic Leaf fans over the last half century or so. I guess you could say he got off easy in some respects.
Alexander Steen, Matt Stajan, Justin Pogge, Jiri Tlusty, Luke Schenn, Tyler Biggs, Nazem Kadri, Nik Antropov, I could go on. How many first round draft picks of the Toronto Maple Leafs have had the collective weight of our hopes and dreams for Leafs Nation placed squarely upon their shoulders? Too many.
Yet one first round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs seemingly evades such an unfair burden. Call it good timing, call it a low profile personality or maybe it’s the distracting resemblance to a certain misunderstood Christmas elf that just wanted to pursue dentistry. Whatever it is, William Nylander seems to be putting the pieces together for a long, successful career without the hyper focus of this market that puts the eye of Sauron to shame. For a 20 year old player of his calibre and pedigree in Toronto, that makes him a bit of a unicorn around here, a fortuitous one for the Leafs.
This is a player who was an AHL scoring leader as a teenager, amassing 77 points in his first 75 games with the Marlies and subsequently led the Leafs in offensive output during his first 22 games playing NHL hockey. He did not look out of place at all and in fact, dazzled with the speed of his game, agility and a quick release from the high slot. There is no reason to believe that this is a player who couldn’t lead the Leafs in scoring in his first full NHL season. So where are all the articles trumpeting the second coming of Dave Keon?
They’re being written about other players. That’s right, it’s not that we’ve collectively become a lucid, sober fan base with salient appraisals and grounded expectations, (would we really want that anyway?) No. We’ve merely refocused our hyperbole on another player (or two) depending on who you ask, both chosen higher than William.
Most of us fit into one of the following camps: a) Auston Mathews will single handedly save us from everything forever -or- b) Mitch Marner is Patrick Kane with upside. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit.
How many Leaf fans do we see anxiously awaiting William Nylander’s upcoming campaign though? How many grandiose proclamations or comparisons have we seen of the 20 year old to players like Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane? Not too many and that’s great news.
It’s understandable to a degree, it’s perfectly reasonable to be excited about two of the best talents we’ve seen since a certain young swede first graced centre ice for the Blue and White all those years ago.
William Nylander is almost flying under the radar and I think that is a terrific plus for the youngster. He will be able to focus on becoming a better player and realizing his potential. No rumours about butting heads with coaches or questions surrounding his work ethic or eating habits that have plagued so many talents in Toronto. He can focus on playing hockey in a city that once had a controversy over a Doug Gilmour dandruff commercial. That’s exceptionally rare for a talent of Nylander’s ilk. One that we should appreciate. I cannot remember a time when a player of his age and talent was able to avoid the spotlight in Toronto. It may not last but for now, I sure do appreciate this rare exception. I’ve looked on with envy at smaller markets and how their prospects are granted so much focus away from the spectacle that is Toronto Maple Leafs hockey. They seemingly transition more consistently into elite players around the league and I believe it is related to the overall calm around their teams. I cringed at how many miles Nazem Kadri logged riding up and down from the big club, back to the Marlies and vice versa. The result of expectations placed on the youngster that the team was really stretching to accommodate before the time was right. That can’t be good for a kid trying to hone his craft and gain confidence in what is uncharted territory in their young lives.
You could say that expectations are reasonably low for Nylander at this point and as training camp approaches, it may begin to sink in for fans that instead of a dynamic duo, we have three amigos. The Canadian born Swede has bulked to the tune of 31 pounds since the draft combine which puts him at 190 pounds presently on a 5’11 frame. Not bad! He’s quietly rounding into NHL form.
There are so many measures and indexes that combine and become exponential for a young player’s growth besides the raw talent that Nylander possesses in spades. Many focus on size, strength, speed and endurance and they would be wise to. All are critical attributes that allow them to play at the extraordinary NHL pace. These attributes are influenced by work ethic, diet, lifestyle and knowledge, all of which require maturity to master. Let’s not forget however, the role that getting to know their peers around the league plays into their improvement. Nylander has not even played enough games in the NHL to face every team once, let alone enough times to evaluate the weaknesses in their play for him to exploit and become feared. By around the 60 game mark, he will have played most teams twice. That will be the time for him to really make his mark. We will begin to see what we have in the final 20 or so games. Until then, let’s remain carefully optimistic on this player.
Nylander seems to have avoided the wrath of Zeus for now, but when the stakes get raised and believe me they will, judging by his beach volleyball photos from this summer, the now sturdy swede will carry the weight just fine when his time comes. I just hope that is not any time soon.
Let’s take a moment and appreciate the scenario we have provided for William Nylander. Mike Babcock spoke about creating a “safe” environment for our players and prospects. I’m sure that if asked, he would applaud our fan base for doing their part too. Let’s enjoy the journey of this kids development alongside our other top prospects and remain patient because I’m sure they’re looking forward to returning the favour.