I think a lot of Leaf fans, understandably, would have been excited to see William Nylander playing with the big club this season. During exhibition games he flashed some of the vision, hands and speed that should make him a bona fide NHLer before long—maybe even a legitimate difference-maker for the Maple Leafs.
But I was actually relieved to hear on Monday that the Leaf brass had made the decision not to keep Nylander as an 18 year-old. As tantalizing as the idea is (wouldn’t we all like to see the Leafs draft, sign and develop their own young offensive superstar on the forward lines?), the Leafs, in my view, have done the wise thing.
Well, the reasons are simple, but I think important.
First, too many young players, even in this day and age, are rushed to the NHL. The Sabres went through this with one of their gifted youngsters (Grigorenko) just a year ago. He stayed with the big club, but ultimately had nowhere to play because he wasn’t deemed ready for full-time NHL action. He didn’t want to go back to junior hockey and wasn’t allowed to play in the AHL. But the Sabres’ example aside, clubs are sometimes simply in a hurry to push kids along before they are truly ready. Unless you’re Crosby or someone of that ilk, what’s the rush?
Second, Nylander is a small player and likely needs time, like most youngsters, to fully develop before he is truly ready to play in a league like the NHL, where being able to handle the rough going is still a reality.
Beyond that, while he could get hurt playing anywhere, why risk wasting a year of his entry-level contract when he is susceptible to injuries playing in the world’s best league. Are the Leafs that close to being a Cup contender that he will put them over the top? I don’t think so.
Too, I just believe that he needs time in general to develop as a player. As skilled as he is, he won’t get worse in the next year, only better, I would think, by playing back home in the Swedish Elite League in a familiar environment. I think we’ll see an even better—and better prepared—player a year from now.
Finally, I think it’s good to see that the Leafs aren't feeling so desperate that they end up making a short-sighted decision to that may well backfire in the long term. It’s a sign that management, including Shanahan, believes there are enough NHL caliber players on this roster that the team can make the playoffs without relying (thankfully) on an 18 year-old.
Maybe most importantly for me, though, is that it will be exciting to know that we have a budding star in the pipeline, getting (hopefully) better every day. When we really need him, he’ll be there.
I have no doubt Nylander will play in the NHL. It’s a matter of when, not if. But I’d much prefer, as I have said about other Leaf prospects before him, that when he does make our roster, that he doesn't need to be on the old Leaf yo-yo heading back and forth between the Marlies and the big club. Once he’s here, I want him to stay here—for good.
My sense is many Leaf fans will be pleased to see that the Leafs have placed Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren on waivers. While both players did their job and gave everything they had in their limited opportunities here, the evolution of the game is such that they seem expendable in the current NHL. Whether Carlyle was out-voted or not on this decision, I don’t know. But surely if the Leafs need that kind of toughness—i.e. the willingness to fight to defend teammates or turn the momentum of a game, if you believe in that sort of thing—there are still rugged players on the roster who can fill that irregular niche while playing real minutes and contributing in other important ways.
It took a while, but Carlyle should no longer be making some of the game-night roster decisions that left a lot of fans shaking their heads over the past two seasons.
I still don't know, realistically, how high the ceiling is for this year's edition of the Maple Leafs. But regardless, it’s been a long time between meaningful games, eh? It’s time, finally, to drop the puck Wednesday night against the Habs.