PHILADELPHIA – One year ago at the NHL draft in Newark, the Maple Leafs picked Frederik Gauthier with their first selection, a hulking centre with likely third-line potential and a low offensive ceiling.
They swung for a much higher fence with the eighth overall pick on Friday night, landing the "electrifying" William Nylander from Sweden. A speedy, highlight-reel winger, he is the son of longtime NHL centre Michael Nylander and the first European Toronto has drafted in the first round since Jiri Tlusty in 2006. Nylander is also the first draft pick of the Brendan Shanahan era and an injection of homegrown game-breaking ability, long-starved within the Leaf organization.
"He's got high, high-end skill," gushed general manager Dave Nonis, shortly after the pick was made.
And that fills a need within the prospect ranks of the organization, considerably deprived over the years. Though hopeful that the likes of Carter Verhaeghe, Connor Brown and Andreas Johnson may eventually make an impact of sorts with the big club, the Leafs simply did not boast a game-breaker with Nylander's ceiling beyond the NHL club (and have not historically).
They haven't landed many at all from the draft.
Vincent Damphousse, picked sixth overall in 1986, was the last homegrown player to register at least 80 points in a season as a Leaf. Toronto has, additionally, sent only two homegrown players to the All-Star game in the past 20 years, neither of whom was a forward (Tomas Kaberle and Felix Potvin). Dealing first round picks – as they did five times from 2003-2011 – certainly didn't help the matter.
Nylander may or may not make it, but he, at the very least, represents the kind of high upside, homegrown talent the organization has mostly lacked, especially up front – Nazem Kadri, who scored 20 goals as a 23-year-old last season, was a recent exception.
Nonis wouldn't go as far as to say that adding skill was a priority, but labeled it "an area of weakness". "He might be the most skilled player in the draft," said the Leafs GM of Nylander.
Nonis saw that skill firsthand at the Under-18 tournament in Finland this past April.
Nylander, playing for Sweden, led all players with 16 points in seven games, notching six goals along the way. As a teenager, he spent part of last season in Sweden's top league, totaling a goal and seven points in 22 games – notable given his age and size (5-foot-11, 169 pounds).
"He has NHL speed, NHL hands, an NHL shot right now," Nonis said. "It's whether or not the rest of his game can catch up."
Unwilling to pay Dale Tallon's price for the first overall pick and rights to draft Aaron Ekblad, Nonis said he actually considered moving down if one of two players – Nylander among them – wasn't there to be had with the eighth pick.
Nylander grew up around the NHL, his father totaling 920 NHL games for seven different teams. That kept the younger Nylander in North America until the age of 14 when he moved to Sweden, eventually playing alongside his 40-year-old dad last year (with Rogle in the second-tier league).
"I like to score goals and make plays," Nylander said, projecting an aura of confidence and cool, noticeably unfazed by all that surrounded him.
A free agent and thus able to come to North America next year if he and the organization so choose, Nylander will audition for the Leafs in the fall.
"He'll definitely have a chance to make our team," Nonis said. "[But] I really don't care how skilled you are, it's very difficult to make the NHL as an 18-year-old. I think it'd be a long shot for him to do that, but he's going to be given that opportunity and if he's good enough to stick and play and contribute then we would keep him. If not, we'll decide at that point whether it's best to keep him over in North America or to have him go back to Sweden to play in the Elite League."
Nylander boasts a "VERY high ceiling" according to Mark Seidel, chief scout for North American Central Scouting, but has been trailed by attitude questions, something Nonis brushed aside as outward confidence.
Like most draftees, the new Leaf prospect will have to get bigger and stronger before he is likely to make the leap to the NHL, additionally requiring some acclimation to the North American ice surface.
"It may take him a month to acclimate, it might take him over a year – I don't know that," said Nonis. "But the skill-set is very high end."