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William Nylander, right, scores past Montreal Canadiens goalie Zachary Fucale during NHL pre-season hockey action. Nylander was called up to the Maple Leafs from the AHL Marlies on Monday. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
William Nylander, right, scores past Montreal Canadiens goalie Zachary Fucale during NHL pre-season hockey action. Nylander was called up to the Maple Leafs from the AHL Marlies on Monday. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Hockey

Maple Leafs’ top prospect William Nylander set to make NHL debut Add to ...

The Toronto Maple Leafs invasion of youth continues.

This time it’s all coming at once.

The Leafs announced on Monday morning that William Nylander – the team’s top prospect and first-round pick (eighth overall) in the 2014 draft – will be making his NHL debut against the Tampa Bay Lightning later that day.

Along with Nylander, the Leafs will also recall prospects Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman from the Toronto Marlies to play their first NHL games.

Nylander, however, will be the focus. Only 19 years old, he is one of the top scorers in the AHL this season with 45 points in 37 games and has been a dynamic game breaker so far in his pro career.

Now, it’s time to see if that translates to the NHL.

“It’s been a great journey,” Nylander said. “Finally get a chance here. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

“It's exciting,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “You watch them – they're exciting, but they're also kids. I'm going to come and watch just like you.”

Nylander is expected to play on a line with Michael Grabner and Hyman against the Lightning, although Grabner doesn’t have a contract next season and may be traded before the deadline.

Other Leafs expected to be dealt on Monday include P-A Parenteau and Brad Boyes.

The reason the last-place Leafs are recalling some of their top young players right now is a technical one. Per NHL rules, only players called up from the AHL after the NHL’s trade deadline (3 p.m. ET on Monday) are eligible to be sent back down later in the year.

That means the Leafs won’t technically recall Nylander and company until after that deadline, which will keep them eligible to participate in the AHL playoffs this spring. The Marlies are currently the top team in that league and expected to go on a deep postseason run.

In other words, expect Nylander to play the final 22 games of the season with the Leafs then rejoin the Marlies for the playoffs.

That will burn the first year of his three-year entry-level contract but will not affect when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Burning that first ELC year on 22 meaningless end-of-season games is an unusual move for a rebuilding NHL team, but the Leafs are likely calculating that it will keep the cost of Nylander’s second contract down if he signs it at age 22 instead of 23.

At the very least, however, it gives Leafs fans a reason to watch the games the rest of the way.

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