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William Nylander poses for a photo with team officials after being selected as the number eight overall pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center. (Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)
William Nylander poses for a photo with team officials after being selected as the number eight overall pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center. (Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

Mirtle: Nylander a smart bet by the Leafs Add to ...

It’s not always the case that a general manager is positively beaming after the draft.

A lot can go wrong. It’s a long and draining night and your player can get taken or a trade can fall through. You can have designs on moving up or down and it can come apart at the seams when other teams get involved.

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But Dave Nonis was more than happy after Friday’s first round, where his Toronto Maple Leafs took Swedish centre William Nylander eighth overall to the surprise of many in the hockey world.

They didn’t go big or North American, as tends to be their reputation, despite the fact previous high picks were used on Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly.

But they got the player they wanted.

“We’re very happy with the pick,” Nonis said. “Thrilled with it. Whether or not he’s here in short order or not will be up to him and our coaching staff.”

That’s probably a long shot, but that doesn’t mean this was a poor bet. In a draft several GMs described as one of the weakest they’d seen in the lead up, the smart play was to seek out high-end skill and hope the rough edges can be massaged in time.

It’s probably a little extreme to call Nylander a gamble, but there’s certainly some risk involved. Years in advance of Friday, he had been pegged to go as high as the top three, but fears over his size (he’s listed at 5-foot-11 and about 175 pounds) and offence-first game kept him in the second tier behind the so-called Big Four of Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Leon Draisaitl and Sam Bennett.

The Leafs, however, knew that he would slip going in and had targeted both Nylander and pint-sized Danish sniper Nikolaj Ehlers as their best bets to add skill despite not being able to move up.

Both were available at their pick – Ehlers went ninth to Winnipeg – and that made life simple.

Had neither been available, Nonis said that they would have traded down to a later pick.

“He might be the most skilled player in this draft,” Nonis said of Nylander. “In terms of being safe, I don’t think it’s a risky pick. One issue for him was his size but he’s grown a lot in the last 12 months. If you watched him a year ago and look at him now, he’s taller, he’s thicker.

“There’s a lot of work left to do for him, but in terms of foot speed, puck skills and ability to shoot the puck, he’s got all those down right now. It’s going to be about hard work and getting stronger and prepared to play against North American men. He’s already played in a men’s league in Sweden – he’s not a kid that’s been playing junior. He’s played in the elite league against pretty highly skilled and strong players already which I think bodes well for us and probably for his transition to North America.”

“I think every aspect of the game can be improved,” Nylander said of where he needs to develop. “There's nothing single that I try to work on. It's everything.”

What’s interesting on that front is Nylander – whose father, Michael, had a 900-plus game NHL career that included time with Leafs president Brendan Shanahan with the New York Rangers – can play anywhere Nonis and Co. choose next season.

Because he’s a European free agent, he’s eligible to play in the Canadian junior leagues, the AHL, the NHL or back in Sweden’s top league, meaning development-wise, they’ll have options based on how he shows in camp.

Nonis sounded skeptical but hopeful when assessing Nylander’s chances of making an immediate impact with the Leafs, who have some tough decisions to make at the position this off-season.

“He’ll definitely have a chance to make our team – he’ll be given that opportunity,” Nonis said. “I really don’t care how skilled you are, it’s really difficult to make the NHL as an 18-year-old. I think it’d be a long shot for him to do that but he’s going to be given that opportunity.

“If he’s good enough to stick and contribute then we would keep him. If not, we’ll decide at that point if he’ll play in North America or go back to Sweden and play in the elite league.”

Where Nylander really convinced Nonis of the pick was during the under-18 tournament in Finland in the spring. The young Swede emerged as the star of the event with a pile of points and some highlight-reel plays, including a strong showing against the American and Canadian teams that specifically targeted him for some punishment.

The Leafs wanted to see how he stood up to that kind of physical play – which he will see plenty of in the NHL – and came away impressed.

“One of the things we were looking for was if he was going to shrink a little and that wasn’t a factor at all,” Nonis explained. “He played as hard against the U.S. and Canada as anyone else. I think he was trying to prove a point that he’s not going to be a kid that’s going to be intimidated.”

Asked to explain Nylander’s game in a word, Nonis came up with “electrifying,” which isn’t half bad given some of the alternatives.

This is an organization where culture change, compete, leadership and Stanley Cup rings have been heralded as the be all and end all of what they need, but the Leafs most desperate need is for high-end skill.

That Nylander has in spades – and the rest can be developed.

He’s no sure thing like some of the kids that went ahead of him on Friday, but picking eighth, that certainty was never going to be there. At least this bet is one with the potential to pay off in a big way.

“He has NHL speed, NHL hands, an NHL shot right now,” Nonis said. “It’s whether or not the rest of his game can catch up… It may take him a month to acclimate, it may take him over a year – I don’t know that. But the skillset is very high end. I’m sure you guys [in the media] have seen some of the clips of him and those highlights happen regularly.

“He’ll be a very exciting player for our fans.”

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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