The people of Toronto will have the chance to see Team Canada up close and in person when the World Junior Hockey Championship comes to town. However, for Leafs fans in the country’s biggest city, it will also serve as an opportunity to once again welcome 2014 first-round pick William Nylander to Leafs Nation.
While Team Canada won’t hit the ice at the Air Canada Centre until they hit the medal round, Nylander and the rest of his Swedish counterparts will play their first four preliminary games of the tournament in Toronto. The 2014 tournament silver-medalists will be looking to take one more step up the podium this time around and the addition of Nylander should help their chances.
The 18-year-old son of former NHLer Michael Nylander, who was taken by the Maple Leafs eight overall this past summer was given a long and hard look at training camp. However, after the young centreman was given every chance to impress the Leafs coaching staff during the pre-season, suiting up in six of the team’s tryout games putting up a goal and one helper, Nylander was sent back to play in the Swedish Elite League. The Maple Leafs hoping that the youngster would mature and put on a bit more size before suiting up in the NHL.
Meanwhile Back in Sweden
Fast-forward roughly three months now and the explosive right-hander is putting up big numbers while playing with men back in Europe. Nylander has put up eight goals and 19 points through his first 19 games with MODO this year. The Maple Leafs have to be happy about that.
His 19 points is just two behind Per-Age Skroder for the team lead in points, despite Skroder playing 11 more games than the youngster. And only former NHLer Jeff Taffe, has a higher points per game average than Nylander in the SHL at 1.07.
For Nylander this year marks his first World Junior Championship, though the Calgary-born (that’s right) Swede has suited up for the gold and blue in under-18, 17, and 16 tournaments. This includes his explosive under-18 performance last April where despite losing 3-1 to Canada in the bronze medal game, Nylander lead the tournament in scoring with six goals and 16 points in seven games.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Have the Floor
Entering last year’s draft, Nylander was noted by many scouts to be one of the most purely-skilled players available, something GM Dave Nonis was well aware of when he drafted him. He has great speed, a big shot, and terrific hands. The Maple Leafs were close to giving him a spot on the roster coming out of training camp, but felt it was in both theirs and Nylander’s interest to give him time to add some size and strength, while allowing him to continue to develop so that there wouldn’t be a big transition for him once he stepped on to NHL ice.
Sweden will have five returning players from last year’s roster. And though Nylander will be playing in the tournament for the first time, he may very well be looked upon to produce a lot of the offense. Especially with news breaking this past week that Washington Capitals rookie Andre Burakovsky will not be made available for the tournament.
With the way he has played since being sent back home, Nylander has done exactly what the Leafs asked of him, continue to improve. If he keeps it up and can bring his skill back to the other side of the pond, the 5-foot-11, 170-pounder could become a staple on the Leafs for years to come. But until then, Leaf fans will have to settle for watching him play against the best under-20 players the game has to offer. Sweden will play its first game Boxing Day when they take on the Czech Republic.
Craig is an intern at The Hockey News where he has written for both the website and the magazine. He is also a featured-blogger at http://www.hockeyforums.net/index.php/blog/46-its-a-canadian-game/. Craig has an Honours in Journalism from Wilfird Laurier University and is currently completing the Sports Journalism Program at Centennial College. Follow him on Twitter @Craig_Hagerman.