TORONTO — William Nylander is a year older, 15 pounds heavier and undoubtedly more confident in his second Toronto Maple Leafs training camp.
Teammates say Nylander is bigger and stronger, and coach Mike Babcock has been impressed with the 19-year-old’s play. Yet even with those developments, Nylander’s chances of making the team are slim.
With the Leafs committed to a win-later approach, they want their top prospects developing in the minor leagues and at the junior level. In keeping with that theme, Nylander will likely start the season with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies.
“We think he’s good,” Babcock said. “You see players, you see whether they’re ready, you see if they’re ready defensively, you see if they’re ready offensively.
“You just watch to see if they’re ready. We want our guys over-ready.”
Babcock has never ruled out the possibility of Nylander playing so well it’s impossible to send him back to the minors. He has said it’s up to any younger player to “take someone’s job” in the NHL.
“If I take that job, I’ll be happy,” Nylander said. “If I don’t, I’ll keep working hard with the Marlies.”
Nylander starred for the Marlies last season with 14 goals and 18 assists in 37 games. It was the young Swede’s introduction to the smaller, North American-sized rink, and he mastered it quickly.
“He was one of our best players if not our best player with the Marlies last year,” defenceman T.J. Brennan said. “He’s obviously done a tremendous amount of work over the summer. Seeing him doing very well here and playing at such a high pace with some of the best players in the world and against the best players in the world, he’s keeping up.”
Centre Tyler Bozak said Nylander looks physically stronger and is playing stronger on the puck than he did at camp a year ago. He’s dazzled by Nylander’s skill, saying “there’s always an opportunity for him to make a great pass or score a goal.”
Nylander did that in the Leafs’ first pre-season game, setting up Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau for a power-play goal.
“He’s so smart with the puck so I saw that pass coming a mile away,” Parenteau said. “He’s a really good player. He’s got a great future.”
In the Leafs’ perfect vision of the future, Nylander grows up with fellow prospects Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen. Nylander has played a bit with Marner on his wing in the pre-season.
Nylander has dazzled with the puck, although Babcock said the son of former NHL forward Michael Nylander has a lot to work on. Asked if he felt NHL-ready, Nylander downplayed the significance of his pre-season performance.
“These games you’ve been playing against some NHL guys, not a full NHL team,” he said. “I have no idea.”
Nylander could be ready to make his NHL debut later this season, especially if the Leafs follow last season’s blueprint and trade a handful of veterans at the deadline. Until then, he’ll keep heeding his dad’s advice.
“He just said, ‘Just work hard every day you come to the rink and just get yourself prepared,'” Nylander said.
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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the incorrect first name for Nylander’s father.