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Nylander’s evolution to elite


It’s fitting that one of the first questions William Nylander was asked at the Maple Leafs’ opening press conference in Stockholm for the Global Series dealt with whether or not he had taken his teammates to Ikea.

Nylander laughed off the question, but it reminded me of something as the nine-year NHL veteran, now a top-10 scorer, continued to skate gracefully through the media barrage. I had witnessed firsthand the assembly of Nylander from the start.

The 27-year-old star forward has grown immensely since he was drafted eighth overall in 2014, by a Leafs management group that I was part of.

Not every high draft pick arrives ready-made like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews. Most will fall short of high expectations. It’s a daunting task to build an elite hockey player, and Nylander has been no different. Every painstaking step has to be taken, some smoother than others.

The choice at No. 8 was not clear cut. Our scouting staff, led by Dave Morrison and complemented by Swedish savant Thommie Bergman, had two targets: Nylander and Danish dynamo Nikolaj Ehlers, who was starring for the Halifax Mooseheads in the QMJHL. Bergman would make the case for Nylander as potentially the most skilled player in the entire draft. But some of the staff preferred Ehlers because he had developed his game in North America. Others felt Nylander, as a centre, was more versatile.

In both cases, all the pieces were there. And after selecting Nylander — Ehlers went ninth, to the Winnipeg Jets — you could see his game start to build in the American Hockey League. There were glimpses of brilliance at times, but the process couldn’t be rushed, and there’s no time limit when it comes to developing prospects.

Adding to the challenge was a changing cast of coaches, managers and systems. Each change had an impact on Nylander’s progress, and the team’s expectations for him.

There was a major setback in year four, when a prolonged contract disagreement left him on the sidelines through the fall, and unsettled him upon his return to the team. Frustration could have won out at that point and derailed what had been built, but things settled and the process continued.

At times, Nylander has made the game seem almost too easy, but hasn’t been as consistent as his talent suggests he should be. There have been inevitable comparisons to Matthews and Mitch Marner and John Tavares, all of whom have surpassed him in production over the years and garnered more of the spotlight. Was Nylander still missing something that his elite teammates have?

If he was before, he isn’t anymore. All indications are that the work is all but done.

This season, we are very close to seeing the complete Nylander. Consistency is no longer an issue, with at least a point in every game heading into Sunday against the Minnesota Wild in Stockholm. He is making the hard look easy. He’s using the entire ice, going to tougher areas more frequently, making better decisions with and without the puck. In a sport where everything seems to be faster, sometimes slower and clearer is better.

As each challenge is conquered, Nylander seems to be laughing at the degree of difficulty. And like with any good set of instructions that are closely followed, the final product appears to be a good one.





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