The one Leaf-related hockey image that keeps coming back to me in recent days with the exhibition schedule suddenly in full swing has to do with young William Nylander.
I don’t have to remind Leaf supporters that for seemingly the first time in quite a while, the Leafs drafted, this past summer, a forward with what appear to be off-the-chart skills. The young man can fly, has vision and makes plays. While I’m not a fan of most 18 year-olds jumping to the NHL (essentially never for defensemen, rarely for forwards), I’m prepared to temporarily suspend my concerns if this young man really and truly turns heads at camp.
I post this commentary before the scheduled game on Tuesday night against the Flyers. Nylander is expected to make his first appearance in a Leaf uniform. And while I hardly believe that performance in a pre-season game is a prelude to what may occur during the regular season, I’m sure all eyes will be on the young Swedish Canadian—whose father was a solid, longtime NHL player.
We know he won’t play on the third or fourth line, so if he were to make the team, he would have to play real minutes (likely including the power play) on one of the top lines, with a good supporting cast who can take advantage of his skills.
While I admit I don’t think pre-season play—either for an individual or a team—is necessarily a harbinger of things to come, I acknowledge that I have long been aware of some Leaf history that took place many years ago that makes the Nylander situation worth following.
I was all of seven years old when, back during September of 1960, the Leafs went out on a West Coast exhibition trip under then General Manager and Coach Punch Imlach. They played, if memory serves, two or three games in the western United States in some of the cities that were part of the old Western Hockey League. (Could have been Los Angeles and Oakland, I’m not sure.) The Leafs were building what would become a formidable squad, with veterans like Red Kelly, Johnny Bower, George Armstrong, Tim Horton and Allan Stanley. But they also had a tier of youngish, up and coming stars like Billy Harris, Frank Mahovlich, Bob Pulford, Dickie Duff, Bobby Baun and Carl Brewer.
During training camp before the ’60-’61 season, the Leafs already had three good, experienced centers: Kelly, Pulford and Harris. But lo and behold, out of the blue came a 20 year old straight out of junior hockey. Like Nylander today, this young Maple Leaf hopeful, also a center, was small but lightning fast. His name was Dave Keon.
Keon (right) had played well for St. Mike’s in Junior hockey in the then Maple Leaf “farm” system, but was expected to spend his first year as a pro in the minor leagues. However, he so impressed Imlach during that Western exhibition road swing that the crusty coach felt he had to find a place on the team for Keon. Keon was thought to be too small to play in a league with heavy hitters like Bruin tough guy Leo Boivin and Chicago defensemen “Moose” Vasko and Dollard St. Laurent—to name but a few of the fierce, old-school defenders of that era.
Yet Keon not only survived by quickness and guile, he became the Rookie-of-the-Year in the NHL. Ultimately, he also became one of the backbone players of those Leaf championship teams of the 1960s before becoming the team captain for six seasons. In my mind, he was one of the best, if not the best, all-around players/player in the NHL throughout the early to mid 1960s.
Keon maybe weighed 160 pounds at the beginning of his career, small even for the time. He was all of 5 foot 9, if I recall correctly.
For his part, I believe I read that Nylander is closer to 6 feet, but weighs less than 170 pounds. He will get bigger.
But as Keon (and others before and after him) proved, does size really matter, if you have the skill, smarts—and heart—to play in the best league in the world?
I guess we’ll see in the days ahead if Nylander is ready for that big jump, or whether it would be best for the team and for his development if he spent another year back in the top Swedish League or maybe in the AHL with the Marlies.
But even the skeptics, like myself, should keep in mind that surprises can indeed happen at training camp, after all. And there is a Leaf Hall-of-Famer to prove it.