clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is Mitch Marner or William Nylander the Leafs' best prospect?

When the Leafs selected William Nylander eighth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft, he became the team's unquestioned best prospect. With the selection of Mitch Marner fourth overall in this year's draft, has that changed?

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

William Nylander and Mitch Marner are the two best prospects the Maple Leafs franchise has had in quite some time. Never did Nazem Kadri or Morgan Rielly, both widely hyped, carry the résumé and high-end ceiling that Marner and Nylander possess.

Both players, drafted a year apart, are similar in a lot of ways.

Both have played centre and the wing successfully. Nylander, a centre with Modo this season in the SHL, transitioned to the wing full-time when he arrived midway through the 2014-2015 season in Toronto to join the Marlies. Marner, a wing for the better part of his rookie campaign and the start of the 2014-2015 season, transitioned to centre down the stretch for his London Knights.

Both are 5-11 and use a crafty pass-first mentality, strong finishing touch and slick hands to weave through traffic and create without dictating physically. Both use elite skating and a feathery stride to float around the ice and beat defenders wide when the opportunity presents itself.

Both shoot right.

But what separates one from the other? And who comes out on top?

The Résumé

William Nylander

Draft Year

William Nylander's draft year went about as well as it could have gone, dominating at each level before slowly finding his way in the SHL, closing out his rookie season playing upwards of 20 minutes a game with Modo.

Lent to Södertälje in Sweden's Allsvenskan early in the year, Nylander spent the first half of his draft year playing in Sweden's second tier professional league as a 17-year-old. With Södertälje, Nylander scored at a team-high 1.12 points per game (19 points in 17 games), outscoring current NHLer and 2014 draft standout David Pastrnak (0.67 points per game), who led the team in scoring with 24 points in 36 games.

But while Pastrnak failed to progress to the SHL in his draft year, Nylander's impressive performance allowed him to make the rare leap as a forward. Likewise, Nylander's Allsvenskan numbers shattered the recent draft year production of other top Swedish prospects such as Filip Forsberg, who scored at a 0.40 points per game clip (17 points in 43 games) in his draft year.

And after being eased in, Nylander came into his own, finishing the season with seven points (one goal, six assists) in 22 games on a team whose leading scorer registered just 28 points. Modo, a deficient offensive team, registered just 131 goals, good for ninth in the 12-team league.

After starting his SHL career playing between eight and 14 minutes a night in his first 11 games, Nylander quickly usurped his teammates as the team's go-to offensive weapon in 2013-2014, playing no less than 18:23 in any of the team's last seven games, including two games of 21:04 and 22:09.

Internationally, Nylander was record-breakingly good with Team Sweden at the U18 level. In fact, his 16 points in seven games for Sweden at the World Under-18 Championships was among the all-time highest scoring performances by a Swede at that level, registering five more points than anyone else in the tournament, on route to Best Forward honours over the likes of Jakub Vrana, Sonny Milano and Kevin Fiala.

Nylander's 16-point performance was the highest scoring tournament by a Swedish draft-eligible player since Hockey Hall of Fame member Peter Forsberg registered 17 points in 1991.

Post-Draft Year

In his first season following his selection by the Leafs, Nylander began the year where he left off with Modo, logging huge minutes as the team's go-to offensive threat.

His success, playing centre at even strength and the wing or the point on the powerplay, was remarkable. In 21 games with a poor Modo team last year, Nylander registered 20 points, playing over 20 minutes (upwards of 25 some nights) eight times.

On a last-place Modo team that won just 12 of 55 games in regulation, Nylander played at a staggering 0.95 points per game pace, good for third in the SHL. Nylander's pace as an 18-year-old was so impressive that he finished second in points among U20 prospects despite having played just 21 games, finishing ahead of top prospects Lucas Wallmark, Adrian Kempe and Artturi Lehkonen who all played full seasons and just four points back of Jakub Vrana, who played 23 more games.

And just as Nylander was in a different league as his fellow Swedish NHL prospects, he was likewise in a different conversation than all of his Modo teammates. On a points per game basis, Nylander's 0.95 points per game was nearly twice that of the team's leading scorer (0.49).

Joining the Marlies midway through the season after proving he was dominant at the SHL level, Nylander's rookie pace (0.86) exceeded that of fellow Marlies rookie standout Connor Brown (0.80) who is not only two years older but the team's leading scorer, the league's rookie scoring champion, and an all-star.

Once again, after easing into the lineup with just two points in his first six games, Nylander developed into a dominant scoring threat in a league that seldom sees 18-year-olds play at all. In the final two months of the regular season, the gifted young Swede registered more than a point per game with 23 points in his final 21 games.

Internationally, Nylander was once again impressive, leading Sweden in scoring with 10 points in seven games, one point shy of the tournament lead held by Sam Reinhart, Nicolas Petan and Connor McDavid.

Mitch Marner

Draft Year

As a draft-eligible forward, Marner's performance was exceptional. In a draft class filled with highly-touted prospects, Marner rose above the pack, scoring at a two points per game pace with the Knights, good enough not only for the second best draft-eligible scoring clip, but also the second best scoring clip in the CHL.

Marner's 126 points in 63 games paced him ahead of top NHL prospects such as Dylan Strome, Max Domi, Michael Dal Colle, Nikolaj Ehlers, Petan, Reinhart and Leon Draisaitl, behind only McDavid -- and tied with Oliver Bjorkstrand (who is two years older).

More than that, were it not for generational talents like McDavid and Eichel, Marner's scoring pace exceeded that of recent first round picks Nathan MacKinnon, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, John Tavares (narrowly) and Steven Stamkos, making Patrick Kane (2007) the last player to exceed him offensively in a draft class besides McDavid.

In the playoffs, Marner played some of his best hockey, registering 16 points in 7 games prior to London's second round loss.

The Verdict

The production for both players is about as strong as you could ask for.

Few Swedish players have done what Nylander has. Likewise, few have done what Marner did this year in the OHL.

For Marner, the more complete two-way game gives him the edge defensively. But for Nylander, the post-draft year he had in Sweden and then the AHL meant that he's already played professionally in two leagues, having dominated both of them, something Marner won't be afforded the chance to do barring a shockingly dominant training camp.

And while Marner is being projected as a centre and Nylander as a winger by Leafs management, if Marner's unable to add considerable weight to his 160-pound frame, he too may end up being better-suited to play on the wing at the next level.

Nylander, on the other hand, managed to add significant weight in his post-draft year, something that Marner may or may not be able to do. In an interview with TSN Radio, Nylander -- looking stocky -- reported that he was now 189 Ibs, up nearly 20 Ibs from his pre-draft weight.

It is understated just how good Nylander was this season, including by constant opponent Don Cherry, but his performance with Modo (if you follow on Twitter, you'll know I watched the vast-majority of his 21 games) left me awestruck on a regaluar basis. His ability to both gain some strength and adjust to both the SHL and AHL as an 18-year-old was special. Likewise, his draft year production in the context of Swedish prospects places him among all-time greats.

Production-wise, while both were remarkable, Nylander did it on a team with little-to-no help, playing on a lowly Modo franchise while Marner did it with dynamic offensive linemates in his respective league.

And while Marner will likely return to London and dominate in a similar fashion, Nylander is one year further along without any hiccups. If Marner can hurdle the weight gain barrier and produce without Domi and co. at the same rate that may change, but Nylander has already passed those tests.

Edge: William Nylander