Top prospect William Nylander made his NHL debut last night, 20 months after being drafted 8th overall. He has spent the season to this point down the lakeshore with the Toronto Marlies, where he lead the AHL in scoring until leaving for the WJCs in late December.
There was some talk that Nylander would make his NHL debut shortly after the NHL All-Star Game in early February, but a concussion suffered in Europe and subsequent appendicitis delayed that plan. Despite the delay, it certainly seems that Nylander will finish the regular season with the Leafs, and then suit up for the Marlies for a Calder Cup run.
The plan to keep Nylander in the NHL for the remainder of the regular season doesn't come without controversy. Should he play 10 NHL games this season, it will count as the first year of his entry level contract (although it will not count as a season of eligibility towards unrestricted free agency). As shown below, there are sound arguments both for and against this move.
The argument against playing 10+ games
Should William Nylander play 9 or fewer NHL games, the first year of his entry level contract will slide to 2016-2017. Essentially, he will be locked in at $895,000 for 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19.
The allure here is that Nylander, as a key piece of the Leafs' future, would be locked in to a cheap deal as the Leafs begin to ramp up their hoped run as a contender (ideally starting in ‘17-18). This would save vital cap space in ‘18-19, possibly allowing Toronto to add additional short-term depth to the roster on what should be a playoff team. Because the number of years until UFA eligibility will remain the same, it's possible that the Leafs save money by exchanging one RFA year for one ELC year. However, the key to this argument is the '18-19 season.
If Toronto is truly ready to make a run, the extra cap room created by Nylander's contract situation might go a long way to putting them over the top.
The second argument against Nylander playing 10 or more games is that it impacts his eligibility for salary arbitration. Should Nylander play 10 games, he would eligible for salary arbitration in the summer of 2019. Should he play 9 or fewer games, that eligibility is tolled to 2020.
The argument for playing 10+ games
Of course, the flip side of this argument is that should Nylander play 10 or more games, the first year of his ELC will be this season, 2015-16. That means his first season of RFA eligibility would come in '18-19, as well as his first season of salary arbitration (in the summer of 2019).
The argument for burning the first ELC year is two-fold: by playing fewer games and shifting his first RFA season closer to the start of his professional career, his numbers may be slightly depressed (as he would be further from his prime when his ELC ends), possibly reducing the value of his second contract. This is turn could reduce the total outlay (and cap hit) to Nylander until he is eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Second, there looms the possibility that Nylander's ELC could expire the same summer as other top prospects, including Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, and possibly their top pick this summer (should that player stick with Toronto next fall; certainly likely if that player is Auston Matthews). The concern here is that having multiple young, important pieces due for contract renewals in the same summer could hamper the team's flexibility at a time they should be competitive in the Eastern Conference (It's important to note that Mitch Marner cannot be sent to the AHL next season due to the NHL-CHL transfer agreement; in all likelihood, he'll play with the Leafs).
Instead of renegotiating multiple contracts for key players at the same time, Toronto would stagger the expiring ELCs of Nylander, Marner, etc. over 2-3 seasons, giving the team greater flexibility long-term.
Of course, the great unknown here is how well Nylander will play in the NHL right away. Should he absolutely take off, as he did in the AHL this season, it would be difficult for the Leafs to publicly justify sending him back down, but possibly also the most prudent move.
However, should he need an adjustment period, as he did in the AHL last year, it might be beneficial to keep him with the big club. Mikhail Grigorenko, a highly regarded prospect, played 25 games as an 18 year old (maybe?) with Buffalo in '12-13, burning a year of his ELC. He's only now coming into his own as an NHLer in Colorado, after three seasons of mismanagement by the Sabres. That's really just a long way of saying that we can't predict the future; we really don't know if the decision to play Nylander 10 games or not will impact the Leafs long-term for at least a few more years. Unfortunately, the decision as to whether or not Toronto should burn year one of Nylander's ELC will have to be made before the team can truly assess his level of readiness for the NHL.
Personally, I think there's value in having Nylander play the remainder of the year with the Leafs; he'll come into camp in September with greater experience at the highest level and hopefully more comfort within Babcock's system. Ultimately, he'll get paid if his performance warrants it, whether that's in the summer of 2018 or 2019. But I tend to agree that giving him the rest of this season to acclimate to the NHL, burning an ELC year in the process, is the right move for this development as a cornerstone for the franchise.