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Nylander, Maple Leafs long in the youth

Toronto rookie making huge impression thanks to lessons from dad, Jagr

by Mike Brophy / Correspondent

TORONTO -- When Toronto Maple Leafs rookie William Nylander plays against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; TSN4, FS-F, NHL.TV), he may want to say thank you to Jaromir Jagr.

It was Jagr, after all, who changed the course of William's hockey life. Not with words, but some hard shot.

When Nylander, now 19, was 9 and 10-years-old, his aspiration was to be an NHL goaltender.

From 2005-2007, his dad Michael played for the New York Rangers and was a teammate of Jagr. Following Rangers practices, William would strap on his goalie pads, take to the ice and face Jagr.

"Jagr would light me up," William Nylander said. "Once the shots started getting harder, I didn't want to be in front of those shots that were coming at my head. I decided maybe I didn't want to be a goalie."

The goaltending fraternity's loss was the Maple Leafs' gain.

Nylander has been groomed slowly since Toronto picked him in the first round (No. 8) of the 2014 NHL Draft.

The Maple Leafs, who many experts believed needed size, were intrigued by the 5-foot-11 Nylander's considerable skill and offensive upside, and so far that decision has paid off. In seven games with the Maple Leafs, Nylander has four goals and three assists, his brief NHL success following a 37-game stay with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League, where he had 14 goals and 18 assists in 37 games.

Nylander has displayed uncharacteristic skill and maturity for a teenager, giving an organization that has not won the Stanley Cup since 1967 real hope for the future. At times he has dazzled, completely unfazed by his surroundings despite his youth.

"He's a good player," Jagr said Monday. "He reminds me of Michael a little bit too, but he's got a better shot than Mike, for sure. Mikey didn't have a good shot. He had a good shot, but he didn't like to shoot much. He liked to deke everybody. [William's] got great moves. I think Mike had it too, but he just didn't do it much."

When Nylander scored two goals and three assists in back-to-back games March 19 and 21, he became the first Maple Leafs rookie to have five points in two games since Wendel Clark in 1985-86.

"Confidence is a key factor," William said. "The more confidence you have, the more you can reach your potential."

Growing up around NHL rinks didn't hurt.

Michael Nylander played 920 NHL games with seven teams, scoring 679 points (209 goals, 470 assists). Often when Michael went to the rink, he'd have his two sons, William and Alexander, tagging along. Alexander led Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League in scoring with 75 points (28 goals, 47 assists) in 57 games this season and is a top-ranked prospect for the 2016 NHL Draft.

"[Michael] was such a hard-working guy. He liked to practice even when we had the day off and skate very hard," Jagr said. "He always exercised and the kids did the same thing. I think there were three of them. They were following everybody and everybody else did the same thing."

Video: CGY@TOR: Nylander scores go-ahead goal in the 3rd

"You grow up in the game and you understand what it takes and how good the players are," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "It leads to having hockey sense because you understand the game. It sets you up on the fast track, but you still have to do something with it. The other thing you develop is a passion and love for the game."

Just like Mark and Marty Howe with their dad, Gordie Howe, William received the opportunity to play with his father in 2013-14 with Rogle BK in Sweden as a 17-year-old.

"It was pretty amazing," William said. "I learned lots from him. His message was simple: Work hard all the time. That's what will get you the farthest."

"I never thought it was a possibility, but he was playing so well with his under-20 team that he just (got) promoted," Michael said. "I had been asked to play for a team and it just happened that William was called up to play on my team after Christmas.

"Instead of going to the rink and dropping him off to practice, we would go in together. It was quite a different experience and lots of fun."

Brooks Laich knows the Nylander family well. He assisted on Michael's final NHL goal on April 5, 2009 when they played for the Capitals. Laich also assisted on William's first NHL goal on March 5 for the Maple Leafs.

"He's really settling in quickly," Laich said of William. "He reads the game. The thing that impressed me right from his first game was how, when he got the puck, his head was up and he was surveying right away. His dad was the same. He had the puck on his stick all the time and was surveying, always looking.

"Everybody talks about [William] as a passer, but he has a tremendous shot. His faceoffs are coming and his body position on the defensive side keeping himself between the net and the players is coming. He just needs consistency."

The plan all along was to play Nylander and the Maple Leafs' other top prospects in the AHL this season in hopes of a deep Calder Cup run. The Maple Leafs planned to move veterans prior to the NHL Trade Deadline and give some of the kids a cup of coffee in the NHL before sending them back to the Marlies when the NHL season concludes.

That was explained to Nylander from the outset, but it didn't make it easier for him to accept.

"Of course they explained it to me, but at the same time you want to play in the NHL," Nylander said. "Once you get sent down, you focus on doing whatever you can to play well down there so you can get back up."

Based on Nylander's play with the Maple Leafs thus far, that should not be much of a concern.

But his dad says his son needs to keep working hard on his game.

"One of the most important things is to focus and be sharp every day in practice and in the game," Michael said. "Also it is important to work hard in the summer. If you do that, you have a chance to have success as a hockey player."

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