Why Nylander Should Make the Leafs

Despite having, by all accounts, a great training camp, Leafs prospect William Nylander seems destined for the Toronto Marlies and the AHL. The reasons are many, but most prominent among them:

  • The Leafs don’t want to rush their prospects.
  • You don’t want to burn a year of the player’s entry-level contract.
  • As Babcock says, they want their prospects to be “over ready.”
  • The team has a bunch of vets on PTOs and not a lot of room for everybody.

Yes, the arguments seem sound, but I do not agree. I think the Leafs should put Nylander into the NHL right away – if he’s ready. The whole premise of what follows assumes that Nylander currently has NHL skill and would not look out of place in the league.

The Argument for Keeping Him in the NHL

William Nylander is a special player. As a teenager in the Swedish Elite League, his 20 points in 21 games last season + his 18 points in 12 under-2o National games puts him in the company of Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg and should-be Hall of Famer Marcus Nasland. And, as a teenager in the AHL, he scored 32 points in 37 games and was, at times, dominant.

As a 19 year old with one year of professional year of experience and top-of-the-draft talent, he seems more than ready to face NHL competition. In fact, outside of Nazem Kadri, he’d probably be the Leafs best forward if he makes the team – and I think that if he’s good enough, they should let him play.

They should do so because if he is good enough, he’ll get better by being challenged by better players. The Leafs might not be a great team, but with Mike Babcock at the helm and a cast of solid veteran players, I don’t think the Leafs will be the kind of team where a rookie’s soul gets crushed by constant losing and a bad atmosphere. Plus, if he is ready, which he appears to be, it’s not like he is going to have his development halted by having people expect too much too soon – literally no one is saying that he is the Leafs’ savior, or that having him on the team will prevent a losing season.

William Nylander
William Nylander (Photo: EliteProspects.com)

But what about that ECL? Glad you asked. The fact is, whether it’s a year later or not, the team will eventually have to re-sign it’s young players. One year could make a difference if the timing was such that in that final year the Leafs were ready to compete and could add an extra top-level guy for the price they’d be paying Nylander, but, given the Leafs’ current timeline, I don’t think that is an issue.

Even if it is, I think micro-managing the cap to that extent might be impossible. The best thing a team can do is to bet on its young players and sign them to long-term extensions that pay for a player’s prime years instead of rewarding him for past seasons he can’t possible repeat. If the Leafs take that approach with their soon-to-be core, then I don’t think burning a year off Nylander’s ECL is that big of a deal. Ultimately, the cost of playing him a year early is nothing if that cost is offset by making the correct developmental decision. If Nylander is ready for the NHL but held back because of cap concerns and a hard policy to not play teenagers, then I don’t think that is the best decision.

The other argument, that the Leafs should keep all their young players in the minors in order to sign all their try-outs and maximize their assets, is a little over the top. Yes, the Leafs are being smart by hoping to give a bunch of veterans the chance to reestablish themselves and peddle them off later for draft picks, but like everything else, doing so has an opportunity cost. 

If the Leafs can find takers for players such as Lupul and Bozak and then give their spots to guys like Boyes and Glencross, then the opportunity cost is nil. However, if they decide to give Nylander’s spot away just to get a draft pick down the road, then the cost is that Nylander doesn’t get an extra year of NHL experience, which might end up hurting the team more than the fourth-pick the Penguins or Blues send them for Glencross next March helps them.

(Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club)
(Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club)

In the end, hard and fast, one-size-fits-all rules never ever help, and they almost always hurt. A slow approach to most of your prospects is wise. But Nylander is not most prospects. In fact, assuming Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are all in the NHL this year, Nylander would probably be the best player in the world not in the NHL. If the Leafs have already arbitrarily decided that Nylander can’t make the team, then I would consider that to be the first mistake of consequence made since the firing of Dave Nonis.

The best thing for the future of the franchise is that Nylander makes the team if he deserves it on the merit of his play.