If you want to pinpoint the day the Brendan Shanahan Era began, an era that would finally move this team away from an obsession with grit and character, and towards a more skill-based approach, it would be June 27, 2014. That's the day the Maple Leafs, drafting 8th overall (and having done one of the most memorable double-downs on all the wrong elements of a team, only to have it blow up in their faces), went in a new direction.
With a choice between two flashy skilled wingers (both Europeans, no less), and a crash-and-bang power forward (from Ontario, no less), the Maple Leafs bucked prevailing wisdom and instead opted for the son of a veteran former NHLer: William Nylander. If you weren't following the Maple Leafs - or Pension Plan Puppets - back then you'll be forgiven for not understanding what a big deal this was.
Remember, this was the Dave Nonis/Randy Carlyle era at its hubris-laden apex; the same team that used its 2013 1st round pick on a player with the upside of "defensive specialist." Given a choice between Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Nick Ritchie, we absolutely expected the pick to be Ritchie.
For a brief moment it looked as if William Nylander would remain in North America, maybe to play in the NHL but potentially even in the AHL. It was decided that he would return to Sweden, and from there his season took off. Nylander impressed us to such an extent that he has jumped up to the 2nd spot on our countdown.
It's important to understand that what Nylander did this season as an 18-year old puts him in elite company, because it really is incredibly rare. Nylander returned to MODO in the SHL and collected 20 points in 21 games up until the Christmas break, after which he left to join Team Sweden for the World Junior Championships.
It's easy for a player or team to be great over half a season (see; the Maple Leafs, 2011 - 2014), but it's important to put in context that what Nylander accomplished in his post-draft season in the SHL puts him in the company of players such as Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund and Tomas Sandstrom, all of whom excelled in the NHL.
As fate would have it, the World Junior Championships were held in Toronto and Montreal. With Team Canada playing its preliminary round games in Quebec, the Toronto crowd adopted the gold and blue as its team (along with Denmark) and treated Nylander to a hero's welcome. While the ACC video package celebrating Nylander during a key Sweden-Russia preliminary game was quite possibly the most embarrassing thing ever produced by game ops staff, Nylander still delivered, leading Sweden in scoring with 10 points.
Nylander impressed to such a degree that after the tournament the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move him back to North America to join the Toronto Marlies for the remainder of the season, taking advantage of a CBA loophole that allowed him to play in the AHL and not have it count as a year of his ELC.
The Marlies were desperate for an injection of offence, and Nylander flourished in that role after only a brief adjustment period, registering 32 points in 37 games. The Marlies roared back from near last in the conference before Christmas, to making the playoffs, before ultimately getting bounced in the first round by the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Nylander's near point-per-game performance in the AHL as an 18 year old is quite remarkable, and even more of an anomaly than his SHL performance. Due to differing rules under the CBA, few prospects of any kind play in the AHL as an 18-year old (in the modern hockey landscape), and again even fewer accomplish what he did. Bruins prospect David Pastrnak also played in the AHL as an 18 year old, but he began the year and finished it in Boston. The only other contemporary comparable player is Nikita Filatov, which isn't the greatest selling point for Nylander, but Filatov did make the NHL; and flamed out for reasons little to do with his skill level.
So the obvious question now is, why does Nylander finish 2nd?
On Monday, when Mitch Marner was revealed to have finished 5th, it was shocking to some readers. I imagine most expected that this meant that the proven skill of an NHL player would win out over the promise of a raw prospect. Then Nazem Kadri was revealed at #4, and Jake Gardiner at #3. How could this be? If potential mattered that much, wouldn't Marner also be higher? Why one but not the other?
As we've seen this week, there's a split in how voters approached their list; some preferred the tantalizing promise of a young player like Nylander or Marner; while others preferred established, very good NHL players, like Jake Gardiner. No matter the preference in voting style somebody still has to be first on the ballot, and that's where Nylander earned the advantage.
Twelve of the fourteen voters effectively grouped Nylander and Marner together in their rankings, in most cases placing the duo in the 1-2 spots, or the 4-5 spots. Ten of those twelve rankings placed Nylander ahead of Marner, and on the two ballots where they weren't ranked consecutively, Nylander was ranked higher.
The question became an either/or; if you valued potential over certainty, you had Nylander at the top and Marner just below him; if you valued the opposite, your ballot varied slightly, but Nyalnder was still generally 4th and Marner 5th. Finishing 2nd to our champion (whom we'll discuss tomorrow) became a function of being able to bridge both trains of thought, and finish in the top on 13 of the 14 ballots.
So why Nylander over Marner? For the same reason that Connor Brown finished ahead of Dmytro Timashov, or why Stuart Percy finished ahead of Travis Dermott. Putting up good results in junior is great, even when as eye-popping and rare as Marner's; but doing so against professionals while still being young enough to have ability to grow indicates they are more likely to reach their potential.
Nylander is a year older than Marner and just had an excellent post-draft season in two of the best leagues in the world. When you add in the fact that Nylander will return to the AHL, with an eye toward progressing to an NHL job next season; while Marner will almost certainly return to the London Knights it was never even close.
William Nylander is our well deserved runner-up for the 2015 edition of the Top 25 Under 25. We hope he will make the 2016 edition an even tighter race.