William Nylander continued his impressive start to the season yesterday by picking up yet another two points, assisting on a Kasperi Kapanen power play goal less than a minute into the game, and then scoring on a Kapanen rebound in the second. Those points gave Nylander his 22nd and 23rd in 17 games, as the 19 year-old continues to be everything that Leafs' fans hoped he would be this season in the AHL.
And therein lies the temptation for the Toronto Maple Leafs: as the big club struggles to score, it would be great if they could bring up their star prospect for a little extra help. Whether or not this is the right choice is, of course, the big question.
On one hand, the Leafs have something of a history of rushing prospects to the NHL (Luke Schenn being a more recent example), and so it is understandable that many fans support the idea of a slow and steady approach to prospect development - making a plan and sticking to it. This type of plan would be what some would call the "Detroit model", and though Detroit is certainly not the first hockey club to conceive of a slower development track, the presence of Mike Babcock behind the Leafs' bench this year will no doubt cause some fans to presume that a similar philosophy will be put into practice in Toronto.
To be fair to the Leafs, they've been better over the past few years, bringing Nazem Kadri up more slowly, though with the exception of Morgan Rielly, really no other prospect has forced the issue. The Leafs have been in a different position than the Wings for a long time in that the Wings have had veterans forcing young players further down the roster, while the Leafs have needed all the help they could get, be it from a teenager or otherwise. Basically, the Leafs have been bad for so long that it has been hard for them to find an excuse to keep a younger player away from the big club. Nylander is another such case.
Our own draglikepull made a compelling case on Twitter yesterday for calling up the Leafs' best prospect:
I'm increasingly convinced Nylander will be called up to the Leafs in the 2nd half of the season (or at least that he should be).
Few reasons for that. 1. It would burn an ELC year, but not a year towards UFA age, which is arguably more important.
2. Marner will be in the NHL next year and I'm not sure you want to be negotiating a 2nd contract w/ both players at once.
3. You very likely keep the AAV of his 2nd contract down if he has fewer NHL GP at the time.
4. He's earned it. I mean, seriously, he's probably Toronto's 3rd best forward right now (after Kadri and JVR) and he's only getting better.
— Draglikepull (@draglikepull) November 22, 2015
It's hard to argue any of those points aside from maybe the second - I'm not sure it makes a big difference whether or not the Leafs are negotiating with one or both of Nylander and Mitch Marner at the same time, but Chicago certainly did get itself into a mess with the contracts of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Ideally, the Leafs' management would be smart enough to avoid paying as much as Chicago did, but then, hey, it's not like Toews and Kane wouldn't have got that money if they hit the free market anyway. Did negotiating at the same time affect that? Shrug.
The argument for the slow-and-steady development path is a difficult one to make without first-hand knowledge of Nylander's situation, but it's perhaps worth considering some of its potential benefits. First is that Nylander would be kept away from a bad team and kept on a good one. This has potential implications for intangible things like his confidence and leadership skills, but while these are important, they are also hard to measure against the value of drag's points listed above.
Even if Nylander finished playing the season with the Leafs, he could easily be sent back down to the AHL to play for the Marlies in the playoffs once the Leafs' season is (let's face it, likely) over. Again, perhaps there is something to be said for Nylander playing an entire season for a single professional team - something he has yet to do - but the positive effects of that plan are speculative at best.
The extra time in the AHL could potentially give Nylander more time to get stronger/faster before making his NHL debut. Of course, players in the AHL aren't much slower than in the NHL at all, and when it comes to strength and being able to withstand a physical punishment, it's hard to argue that the difference between the two leagues is significant enough to alter Nylander's development.
Finally, and perhaps also most quantitatively, staying in the AHL maximizes Nylander's playing time per game, and would allow him to be more successful on the scoresheet than he would with the Leafs. But if the big club waits until much later in the season, is the missed ice really going to make that big of a difference? At the NHL level, teams play slightly more frequently, and perhaps this would make up for any ice time lost. Moreover, playing against more difficult competition has the added benefit of pushing Nylander to be better.
All told, it's anything but clear what the best option is for Nylander. Patience isn't the only form of prudence, and bringing him up later on in this season may in fact be the better decision. What say you?