Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Top Rookie? Not Those Guys

There are a pile of great young players in the NHL this season. The focus has been on the top picks as Matthews and Laine have been scoring goals, but there is one rookie who has quietly taken the scoring lead for freshmen and he was named as the top rookie for the month of October. It's not Matthews nor Laine, but it is Matthews' linemate as William Nylander has recorded seven assist and 11 points to earn that accolade! I'd say that would surprise some, but it shouldn't if one has been watching Nylander's progress since arriving in Toronto to play with the Marlies and Leafs. And that's another reason why Leafs fans should be excited.

Nylander was drafted eighth-overall in 2014 by the Leafs, and many questioned the pick despite the obvious talent that Nylander has. Players such as Nikolaj Ehlers, Dylan Larkin, and Brendan Perlini were still on the board, but the Leafs found themselves in an excellent spot where they took the best player available at their pick. Blame Carolina for taking Haydn Fleury or the Islanders for taking Michael Dal Colle or Vancouver for taking Jake Virtanen, but the Leafs were overjoyed when they found themselves with an opportunity to take Nylander with pick #8.

They were rewarded when he played extremely well for Sweden at the World Junior Championship in 2014-15, finishing fifth in scoring and the highest non-Canadian. After seeing his performance, the Leafs assigned Nylander to the AHL's Toronto Marlies where he immediately went to work and helped the Marlies improve. The right-winger scored 32 points in 37 games and really helped the Marlies become one of the league's most fearsome teams in this second-half of the season.

Last season, it was said that the Marlies might have been Toronto's best hockey team as Nylander, Connor Brown, and Nikita Soshnikov went bananas on the scoresheet. There was still some concern about the Swede's slight of frame, however, but Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said at the time, "Willy's not the biggest guy in the world, though he's quite strong and he uses a lot of that when skating. His lower body and his leg strength, that's where he's put in a lot of effort. Willy and I go to the video to see what else he can improve on. He's still a work in progress."

Whatever they watched and worked on has paid off. Nylander quietly has been a big part of Auston Matthews' great start as the winger has been in on a number of Matthews' goals thus far. Nylander is tied for the NHL lead with seven power-play points as well, so the term "play-maker" might be the bets title for the young Nylander. While it's only been a month of NHL play thus far, the kid has proven that he can score consistently at the AHL level so his promotion to the NHL is the only logical move.

It will be interesting to see if Nylander can react and adapt to the rigors of the NHL's grueling schedule and teams that game plan for Matthews and the crew. He was keyed upon heavily in the AHL last season, and played through those challenges well as the Marlies were the best team in the circuit. As a play-making winger, he shouldn't have as much trouble as a goal-scorer in terms of slumps, but Nylander collecting points requires someone to finish plays.

While some were already preparing the Calder Trophy to sit on a mantle belonging to Matthews or Laine, a young Swede born in Canada might be the best choice to win the hardware. He already has a season and a half of play in the AHL under his belt, and he seems to be adjusting to the speed of the NHL quite nicely.

Could he be the next Swede to win the award, following names like Gabriel Landeskog, Daniel Alfredsson, and Peter Forsberg? If he keeps scoring like he did in October, he should have the award wrapped up come June.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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