October has finally arrived and the start of the regular season is just days away. However, before the puck drops to kick off the 2015-16 season, the Leafs still have some decisions to make with their opening night roster. One of them is what to do with their top prospect, William Nylander.
What to do with Willy?
Here’s the dilemma that the team currently faces: either keep him up in the NHL or let him further develop in the farm system.
There are a few reasons that the Leafs should or should not keep their 2014 first round pick with the team this year. Let’s take a look into these reasons and you can judge for yourself which path is better to take.
Why He Should Stay Up
Last training camp showed us a skilled Nylander who, while scoring in bunches, did not have the body and the maturity to make the NHL right out of the draft. It turned out to be a great decision in the long run, as he proceeded to dominate the SHL on the last place MODO by scoring 8 goals and 20 points in 21 games. Nylander did this against more established players on a larger ice surface and made it seem he was too good for the European league. He later showcased a dominate performance in the World Junior Championship by leading the tournament with 10 points, and then helped turn the Marlies season around by posting 14 goals and 32 points in only 37 games. During Baby Leaf’s short playoff run, he accumulated 3 points total.
After showcasing such a dominate performance everywhere he played last season, there’s no reason not to believe that Nylander is ready to take on the NHL this year. Based on how he did last season, Nylander has all the tools necessary to be successful in his rookie season. One thing Nylander has going for him compared to other prospects is that he has already played against men much older than him and did not look out of place doing so. Instead of keeping him down racking up 90 points, why not take the next challenge with the NHL.
By making the NHL, he gets his first opportunity to develop under Mike Babcock. With the new coach set to begin his 8 year contract with the Leafs, Nylander will have a chance to further enhance his all-around game and fit the mould of the Babcock vision (see Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg). There’s a reason the Leafs hired the Stanley Cup winning coach (after all, even Dion Phaneuf is eager to work with him), and having one of the best coaches of all time as Nylander’s mentor may be key in making him a full-time player and a good one at that.
Should this happens, Nylander will make the team right now not only better competitively, but also more exciting to watch. Along with Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri, Nylander will provide the fans with the small glimpse of promise and talent that the team hopes to possess within the next 3 years. If the challenge is to house a more competitive team compared to last year, then having their best prospect on the everyday roster may be the way to do it. He’s already beaten the likes of Curtis Glencross and Devin Setoguchi, who were both released from their pro tryouts this past weekend, for a shot at the big club. But he now has to outwork and outperform established veterans like Nick Spaling, Richard Panik, and Mark Arcobello for a spot. There’s a reason why he is still with the team with two preseason games left to go.
Why He Should Stay Down
While Nylander has all the skills necessary to make the opening night roster, it may not be enough to get him top line, or even second line, minutes right away. Should he make the roster, he will likely be slatted into the third line and get limited ice time of at least 10 minutes or less. If the Leafs don’t want to do that to their top prospect and grant him more ice time right off the bat, then it would be more beneficial to slot him back in the Marlies lineup and play top line minutes of 20+ while getting an increased role for a potential playoff team.
By staying down, he will also get an opportunity to develop with his future teammates. This year, the likes of Kasperi Kapanen, Connor Brown, Victor Loov, Fredrick Gauthier, and Brandon Leispic will likely be tearing it up in the AHL while developing into a stronger group overall. All of these players, in addition to many others not mentioned, could be joining the big club by next year, so having them and Nylander develop together while establishing friendship will be key to the long-term success of the Shanaplan. It worked for Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist with the Detroit Red Wings, so why not try it with Nylander?
If all else, the Leafs have absolutely no reason to rush Nylander into the NHL this season, especially if the end goal is to acquire a quality defensive prospect to go along with Rielly, Jake Gardner, Loov, and Stuart Percy. Sure, he may rack up some points and may be in the running for the Calder Trophy (assuming Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel aren’t as advertised), but having him in the lineup this year will have no real impact on the big picture and the long-term goal. All it does is burn one year of his entry level contract and bring him closer to unrestricted free agency. Considering that the Leafs are fully set on rebuilding the core and getting it right, that may not something they want to do.
No matter where Nylander ends up this year, he should be just fine and continue to show fans why he was picked 8th overall over a year ago. There are legitimate reasons to keep him up with the big club at the start of the season and there are legitimate reasons to send him down to help out the farm team.
One thing is clear, and it is that Nylander should be happy with which ever decision comes about and his talent that will be on display for the team he will report to represents a glimpse of hope for a brighter future.
The clock is ticking Shanahan, Babcock, and Lamoriello. You have seen him play these past two weeks. Now is the time to make a decision on where Nylander will play.