When William Nylander didn’t make the cut during Leafs camp this past September, management told him to get stronger.
At first, there was disappointment. But with it, came a determination to get better.
“As the year goes by, you get more confident,” Nylander said. “You get the experience at playing at a higher level. Everything helps. It will only help me coming back.”
He returned to MODO of the Swedish Hockey League in October, where his responsibilities changed.
After playing a combination of wing and centre in 2013-14, Nylander became a full-time centre this season and hasn’t looked back.
“I like playing centre, that’s where I want to be,” he said. “It’s the position I feel I play my best in and I feel I can play my game.”
The proof of that has come with production.
Nylander’s ice-time in his rookie year was 13:16 per game: He had one goal in six assists in 22 games with MODO. This year, the ice-time has increased up to 19:03 per game, and his 19 points in 19 games has him as one of two players in the entire SHL to average a point per game or better.
“They want him to progress as a top-line centreman, they do a great job with their development there,” said Steve Staios, Leafs Manager of Hockey Development. “They spend a lot of time doing skills and drills in practice, on ice they also have a great facility.”
There was a bit of a scare when Staios paid him a visit in November to get an update on how he was progressing. It was during that trip when the hockey world started to worry, as video surfaced of a teammate’s skate hitting Nylander in the back of the head.
He missed one game during the incident, and in that time Staios got to go with him onto the ice, and see how far along Nylander has come in his development.
“He’s a very diligent worker,” Staios said. “He wants to be a hockey player and his whole day revolves around getting better as a hockey player. He watches extensive video, he puts in his work off the ice. It’s a matter of him maturing as a player.”
In addition to putting up points, Leafs management is encouraged with what he’s been able to do with the defensive side of his game. The push to have Nylander be a full-time centre has allowed him to work more on his two-way game.
“When he has [the puck], he can play with skill and speed,” said Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas. “Now, he’s starting to show better ability to check, get the puck back and go back on offence which is what we want from him when he comes over to North America.”
While things are going well for Nylander from an individual standpoint, his team is struggling. MODO finds itself in last place in the SHL, and it doesn’t sit well with him.
“It’s too bad the team, we’re not where we want to be,” Nylander said. “We’re trying to get there. Hopefully during the break the team can start winning some games too. We get a streak going and when I come back and I can help the team even more.”
Nylander will get a brand new experience playing against a higher level of players, as he takes part in his first-ever world juniors in December. It’s not the NHL, but Nylander will make his return to Air Canada Centre for preliminary games representing Sweden.
However, he has every intention of cracking the Leafs main roster next season. The work ethic he is exhibiting over in Sweden shows he is moving in the right direction: Even former Leaf and Hall of Famer Mats Sundin gave Nylander a ringing endorsement.
So, with a large audience watching, the world juniors will be an excellent test for one of the Leafs’ top prospects.