The very early returns were shaky. And you could sense the headlines coming.
William Nylander appeared out of sorts. Worse, after three games without a point, the Toronto Maple Leafs top prospect was already terribly frustrated, looking skyward at every missed shot or blown opportunity.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock was even lamenting in practice that he couldn’t move Nylander to the wing due to the fact he had so many centres hurt.
But nine games and a little more than two weeks later, the conversation has flipped. Nylander is scoring, with four goals and three assists, including five points in his last two games. The Leafs are winning, consistently, with a 5-2-1 record in their last eight games.
Babcock? He wouldn’t dream of shifting him out of his natural position, even with Tyler Bozak expected back for the next game.
Nylander’s best effort in his young NHL career came Monday night in aa 5-2 win over the Calgary Flames, a dominant 18 minutes where he could have had four or five points had teammates connected on his pinpoint passes.
As it was, Nylander was the game’s first star, with the winning goal coming early in the third period off a blast from the point.
Confidence is no longer an issue.
“It’s fun when you’re winning,” he said. “It’s fun to be up in NHL, of course. It’s a dream.”
None of what’s happened with the Leafs the last couple weeks has been typical. No team in recent memory in this league has called up this many young players – there were nine Leafs 23 or younger in the lineup against the Flames – and flourished to this extent.
Toronto hasn’t just beaten fellow bottom feeders; they’ve downed the Islanders, Red Wings and Lightning and hung in one-goal games with the Capitals and Panthers in the span of these dozen games.
The Leafs are even a strong possession team in that span at 53 per cent, which can be an area of weakness for young players trying to find their way early in their careers. Nylander himself is 55 per cent (score adjusted) through 12 games, including a big night (70 per cent) against Calgary with linemates P.A. Parenteau and Zach Hyman.
His coach was impressed.
“Those things are what matters to me more than the other stuff,” Babcock said of Nylander’s sound defensive play. “The other stuff, we know that he has that.”
Perhaps. But there was no guarantee this was how effective Nylander would be this quickly when he was drafted a couple years ago. He dropped to eighth in the 2014 draft after there were concerns over his work ethic and strength, but as can be the case with overseas prospects, those whispers can get overweighed.
L.A. Kings superstar Anze Kopitar, after all, inexplicably fell to 11th back in 2005.
While not big like him, Nylander has a certain core strength that is evident in his skating, and it’s clear his shooting skills are already the best on this team.
He also has excellent chemistry with Hyman, who has become a close friend during their time together with the Marlies and is a top-notch grind-and-get type along the boards and on the fore-check.
On Nylander’s goal, it was Hyman who made the pivotal retrieval in beating out an icing play.
“I think our line played really well,” Nylander said. “We had Hyman there on the fore-check getting pucks and being great in front of the net on both goals. And P.A. making some great plays.”
“Very effective,” Babcock agreed.
There’s been hard work behind that success. Babcock has been stuffing Nylander in the video room some days and filling his head with images of Jonathan Toews and David Krejci and other elite NHL centres, showing his green understudy how others at his position get the puck and maintain possession against bigger, stronger players.
In Nylander, the Leafs have found a willing pupil. There’s a will there to make a difference and belong in the league his father played in for so long.
“He’s excellent,” Babcock said. “He’s a smart, smart guy. He knows what you’re going to talk to him about before you talk to him.
“It’s just spending time to help guys get better. It’s part of the process. That’s what coaching is. He wants to be great. He understands [what it takes].
“What is going to decide [how good he can be] for him is just how much drive he has to do all the little things right. To train, to eat, to live. But he’s got ability.”
What always weighed in Nylander’s favour was his production, as he had almost a point-a-game as an 18-year-old in both the Swedish Hockey League and the AHL last season. In a half-year with the Marlies this season, he was trending toward winning the scoring title, which is almost unheard of for a teenager.
You can’t do that without superlative talent. And, typically, that kind of production at a young age translates to eventual production in the NHL. There’s never a guarantee it comes this early, but that appears to be what we’re seeing in his recent games.
It’s no wonder the Swedish Ice Hockey Association was at the game scouting their rising star for the world championships in St. Petersburg – although Babcock made short work of those hopes afterward.
Nylander will lead the Marlies in the AHL playoffs. They hope to win a championship.
“That’s where he’s going,” Babcock said. “So it doesn’t much matter [if Sweden’s interested].”
Which makes sense given the Leafs season is about to end, 10 games from now. But it’s hard to imagine Nylander has a whole lot to learn there given how well he fits in here.