When the Toronto Maple Leafs selected forward William Nylander with the eighth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, they felt they were getting a great player. What has surprised the organization is how well Nylander handled being thrust into the spotlight during the team's prospect camp in Toronto.
Nylander joined 28 other prospects at MasterCard Centre this week, and the impression he left was overwhelmingly positive.
"He's been very impressive. And not to put pressure on a young player like that, I think the first step was just getting him here," Maple Leafs president of hockey operations Brendan Shanahan said. "What really impresses me about William, aside from the skill level he has, is just his character that he's shown since he's been here."
Nylander ended last season playing for Modo in the Swedish Hockey League. As a 17-year-old playing against much older players, he had one goal and six assists in 22 games and showed the kind of ability that made him a top-10 draft pick.
"Playing against men might've helped me a bit," Nylander said. "I haven't been at the NHL level yet, so maybe it'll probably give me a little bit of an advantage against guys that have been playing junior. Otherwise it'll be a tough step."
His abilities on the ice don't seem to be an issue with the Maple Leafs.
"Willy is obviously a great hockey player and you can see his skating and you can see his skill sets; they're elite," Maple Leafs director of player development Jim Hughes said.
Prospect camps give organizations the chance to see what they've got with their younger players; but for the Maple Leafs it's a bigger opportunity than that.
"It's incredibly important. These kids that are here right now, you have to also create some spots for them," Shanahan said. "You've got to have a few holes there with the big club so that not only these guys, but our [American Hockey League] guys who are in the gym in the mornings know that there's a reason to be working out this summer, that there's an opportunity and there's a job to be won possibly."
Nylander already has his sights set on jumping straight to the NHL.
"It's my goal," he said. "I have never been at that level. It's something that we'll have to wait and see what happens. It's something I'm working hard for right now and all summer to try and make a great impression there."
The camp in Toronto was Nylander's first experience with North American hockey. It was held on smaller ice than he's used to, but the competition was players his age. He's also working alongside players he's familiar with from Sweden.
"You don't want to get too close to him," said defenseman Viktor Loov, Nylander's teammate with Modo and at Maple Leafs camp. "He's really good with the puck close to the defenseman's feet because he's so skilled with the stick. Maybe have a little gap so he can't deke you, so you get him to the outside and up to the boards. That's what I would do."
If there's anything that could keep Nylander from making the Maple Leafs this season it might be his size. He's listed at 5-foot-9 and 169 pounds, and the worry is a player that size at his age will get taken advantage of by bigger players in the NHL.
"Stuff that I've been talking to them about is, in particular, in the gym. Getting bigger and stronger is going to be a key factor," Nylander said.
Though size might be an issue for Nylander, having an experienced mentor in his life is not. William's father, Michael, played 920 NHL games with seven teams. Having that kind of leadership at home has been a benefit.
"He's always told me to always give it your 110 percent when you're in the gym or on the ice," Nylander said of his father. "It's one of the main things I've tried to do all my life."
Nylander returned to Sweden after the prospect camp to prepare for a return trip for training camp in September. When he gets back he'll have the motivation of an opportunity to compete for an NHL roster spot, not to mention the buzz that goes with being a first-round pick in Toronto.
"It's something that you like to hear. It feels really good to hear," Nylander said of the attention. "You know they're watching everything you do, so you have to give it your all on the ice and in the gym."
Author: Joe Yerdon | NHL.com Correspondent