At the beginning of every NHL season, there are expectations for teams to play their best and set certain goals. They always come in with a positive attitude and hopes of making the playoffs.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, that isn’t the case.
After another disastrous season in 2014/15, we knew that change was coming. And it came quickly.
With Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas already on board a year before, the Leafs went after the most sought after name in free agency, Mike Babcock. From that point, both the president and newly appointed head coach preached two themes, patience and pain.
After a 2-8-2 start to the season, it’s safe to say that we are already in the “pain” mode of the rebuild for this historic franchise. It’s also a good time to point out that we can completely write off the playoffs for this year (even though we knew it wasn’t going to happen going into training camp). Although we are seeing a different team in terms of possession and the ability to buy into a new system and structure, this is just the beginning of more pain to come based on the aforementioned record.
With that in mind, there is a positive at the end of all this. The potential of adding another key piece at the NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo, New York.
While people are intrigued by the skill of guys like highly touted centre Auston Matthews (ZSC Lions), Jakob Chychrun (Sarnia Sting) and Jesse Puljujarvi (Karpat), there a few other names that stand out and could make an impact on any team.
While it looks like the Maple Leafs are in perfect position to draft one of these prospects, it’s not all set in stone…yet.
Scenario: Let’s say the Leafs fall out of the top three and end up in the 4-7 range of the draft. Two names that stand out in that range are: Michael McLeod and Alexander Nylander of the Mississauga Steelheads.
Nylander (a highly skilled and crafty winger) and McLeod (a big bodied, offensive centreman) rank sixth and seventh, respectively, in Bob McKenzie’s pre-season draft rankings. They’ve been the team’s dynamic duo and are not disappointing in their draft year. The two have played in all 16 games so far and have combined for 37 points this season.
They have found instant chemistry with each other and it’s showing.
“He’s obviously a very skilled player,” said Michael McLeod of Nylander. “He’s able to make plays off the rush and he opens up the ice a lot.”
Like McLeod, Nylander has nothing but positive things to say about his counter-part. “He’s a great player,” Nylander says. “He has a lot of speed and he likes to pass and shoot. It makes it easy when you know where he is on the ice.”
I had the opportunity to take in a Mississauga Steelheads game and witnessed the high-end skill of Nylander and McLeod. McLeod tallied two goals and Nylander added an assist in a shootout loss to the Saginaw Spirit. Both scored in the shootout as well.
While both are offensively gifted, they both have very different unique ways of generating offense.
For McLeod, an important aspect to his game is his relentless ability to pursue the puck.
When the Steelheads were down 2-0, McLeod used his speed to pull away from the Saginaw defense to score a breakaway goal and cut the lead to one. On the game-tying goal, McLeod incorporated a mix of his high-end speed along with his size and his body to his advantage. McLeod started behind his own net and generated a great burst of speed. He was able to fend off a defending Saginaw player in the neutral zone, entered the offensive zone and sniped it passed Evan Cormier.
“When the pressure’s on that’s when I fly and play at my best. I always want the puck on my stick,” said McLeod.
The size and speed factor was evident in McLeod’s game. Even when he’s not making highlight reel plays, he’s not afraid to get into the corners and battle for the puck.
“I usually find I play my best when I get in the corners, playing a little dirty, get a few hits in and making plays down low,” he said.
Head Coach and General Manager of the Steelheads, James Boyd thinks that McLeod is a game-changing player.
“I think Mikey, throughout his young hockey career, is a guy who when the game is on the line he demands the puck,” said Boyd. “He seems to have control of the game at times. Definitely uses his speed, his hands and definitely exciting to watch.”
The speed and hands were on display that night at the Hershey Centre. McLeod demanded the puck and helped the Steelheads salvage a point.
There’s no doubt that McLeod could turn heads going into the draft. His impressive season started off by being a key player for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka tournament this summer. McLeod tallied two goals and two assists en route to a gold medal.
“Obviously throwing on the Canadian jersey is a huge honour and taking home the gold medal. It was an amazing feeling.”
Kicking his draft year off with a gold medal is always a great feeling and a great way to improve a player’s “draft stock.” It also comes with a long year of hard work and dedication. That comes with the help and aide of his head coach.
Photo Credit and Special Thanks to Charles Warburton Photgraphy for allowing the use of this great photo
“He (Boyd) pulls me aside a lot and we do video with all the coaches and just pick apart my game and see what we can do better and I get help a lot.”
Like McLeod, Nylander is also making a name for himself in his draft year with 10 goals and 21 points in his rookie season.
“It feels great right now,” says Nylander. “Our team is great. I really like it here.”
I was going to give my impression of watching the youngest Nylander, but James Boyd gave a very detailed scouting report of his game:
“He’s got the skating and the hands and the shot. But I think what sets him apart is he has an ability to sense pressure. To find the open areas of the ice, to find seams to attack and go to the net. He’s a slippery player. He can squeeze between the defenders and get a shot off. That really for me has been what sets him apart is that elusiveness in the offensive zone.” – James Boyd on Nylander
What Boyd said was what was on display at the game against Saginaw. He’s got great offensive awareness, great play-making abilities (especially the ones in high traffic areas) and is a real threat in the offensive zone. All I can add is that Nylander is shades of his older brother William, who is also making an impact with the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League.
Photo Credit and Special Thanks to Charles Warburton Photgraphy for allowing the use of this great photo
Even with a lot of positives, Nylander feels that a lot can be done to improve his game.
“Everything,” he said. “I think I can improve everything. I try to work every day with shooting, skating, turns, stick-handling.”
Originally, Nylander was born in Calgary with his brother. Even after playing a number of years in Sweden, from a coach’s point of view, the transition to North America was a non-factor for Alex.
“Really the European ice was foreign to him,” Boyd said. “He speaks perfect English. He’s familiar with the culture. He knows the ice surface. He knows most of the players in our league (OHL) because he played against them growing up in Chicago and Maryland. I think that way it’s been easy for him. There hasn’t been many of the cultural differences that maybe some of the other players face when they come over.”
To play his rookie year here in North America was an easy decision for Nylander.
“Last year I was playing in the U-17 Worlds here in Sarnia,” Nylander said. “I got a little taste about how the rinks are, the size of the rinks and how many people come out to the games. Also my brother’s here. It was a pretty easy decision.”
“It’s always good to have the family near you. My brother gives me a lot of tips and stuff. He tries to watch as much games as possible and I try to watch as much of him as possible.”
With his brother in close proximity, his father isn’t too far behind. Literally.
Anytime Alex turns his head, his father is behind him on the bench as an assistant coach with the Steelheads. But the relationship between the two hasn’t changed at all.
“It’s really the same,” Nylander said. “He treats me like a regular player out there.”
“He’s a tough coach. He’s strict and everything’s got to be great at practice. Got to work hard every day.”
Even with Michael McLeod, family is an important factor. His younger brother Ryan played for the Toronto Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League. After being drafted third-overall by the Flint Firebirds, Ryan was traded to the Steelheads to be re-united with his older brother.
As any brother, Michael was ecstatic.
“I was very excited,” he exclaimed. “Not many people get to play with their brother. Even in the OHL, it’s a lot of fun.”
“It’s my draft year and for (Ryan) to be there for the ride and just watch, take it all in with all the draft eligible guys. It’s going to help him.”
Like Michael, Ryan is having to adjust to life in the OHL. As the oldest, Michael is doing nothing but to help out his younger brother, reflecting on his rookie season last year.
“Last year I was going through the exact same thing,” said Michael. “I don’t think I scored until around like 10 games in. I didn’t really get going until the second half. I talked to him the other day and just let him know that the first half is just about learning and getting your feet wet.”
Even though they’re on the same team, Michael still likes to give his brother a hard time every now and then.
“Yeah, a little bit,” he said as he laughed. “But I went through the same thing last year and I’m just trying to show him the ropes.”
When making a tough transition, it’s always a great feeling to have family near by to guide you through it. In the case with the Michael and Alex, this is a great opportunity to have people, who have already gone through the process, to steer them in the right direction.
Michael has been given to the opportunity to play with his brother. What if Alex had the opportunity to be re-united with his older brother in a Leafs uniform?
“That would be a huge dream come true,” Alex said. “It would be amazing if that happened.”
At the end of the interview with Alex, I had a little fun asking him my final question.
LH: “Who would win in a head to head match up. You (Alex), your father or your brother?”
He didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“My brother,” he said laughing.
It’s no surprise that the family connection is strong in the Nylander and McLeod clans. Both are doing what it takes to make it to the big league and they are going to have all the support along the way. Especially in their draft year.
They are getting advice from brother’s, parents and most importantly, their coaches. James Boyd has one important piece of advice for his two offensive powerhouses.
“I think block out all the noise. There’s a lot of experts now. It seems like the waves of emotion are really high and really low at different points in the season. And we just tell them, ‘Hey listen. We’re going to continue to work together. Each day is a new day and let’s focus on what we’re doing now.”
“It’s difficult for these young guys. People’s opinions matter and they get on the internet and different things. We’re just coming to the rink and have fun and enjoy the experience.”
Even with hundreds of eyes watching over them, most notably from the scouting department, both Nylander and McLeod try to put it behind and let their play dictate their draft stock.
“I try to just put it as another day at the office and not think about it too much,” McLeod said. “I always have it at the back of my mind what my end goal is.”
“It’s nothing I really think about,” Nylander said. “I just think about playing my game, working hard, trying to be a threat out on the ice and just play my best every game and hope I’ll be good when the draft comes.”
It doesn’t come as a shock that Leafs fans want a number one centre in Matthews or top pairing, two-way defender in Chychrun. But, should the Leafs fall out of position, they are no doubt getting a player with high-end offensive talent with Nylander or McLeod. With the way they are playing, they have a great opportunity to make a statement and possibly move their way up in the draft rankings.
One thing is for sure, nerves will be all over the place when the Leafs come up to the podium to announce their pick.
“The Toronto Maple Leafs are proud to select…”