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William Nylander, the Marlies, and the game within the game

The Marlies playoffs came to a screeching halt on Sunday afternoon. While Sheldon Keefe presided over an amazing season as a rookie coach, the AHL isn't like other leagues. It isn't all about the Cup.

Christian Bonin |

When you follow a team like the Marlies, get caught up in it, learn to love them, become a fan, you should remember they aren't like other teams. They aren't like an NHL team.

The point of sport is winning. It's about human bodies pitted against each other, against forces of nature, and subjected to the merciless hand of fate, while doing everything in their power to win.

The AHL isn't like that, at least, not completely.

Like the rest of the league, the Marlies are always developing their players while they try to win. Traditionally, the AHL playoffs have meant the rookies sit more, the veterans hit the ice first, and the focus turns to chasing a trophy. But, the Marlies are the new generation AHL franchise, and they don't do that. Development is the first priority, and it stays the first priority, and yet, that doesn't mean they don't try to win.

What it does mean is that when your number one focus of all that development effort thinks this is how you backcheck in a must-win game:

And your team follows up with this a couple minutes later:

You don't start benching the culprits.

It was hard to watch William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen in this playoffs and not think of Jonathan Drouin. Drouin's team, the Tampa Bay Lightning have some marked similarities to the Marlies beyond the blue and white. They like to score their way out of trouble, and their very best forwards are not always so gifted or so interested in playing without the puck. [Hey! - Acha]

Drouin is barely older than the Leafs prospects on the Marlies, but he's had his time in the AHL. It was full of ups and downs, learning experiences, drudgery, pointless games, highlight reel moments—the usual mix.

When he went on strike and said the AHL wasn't where he wanted to play, he also said he worked out and watched video of himself. And he said that he learned from it. We can see that for ourselves.

(Not shown: the rocket fueled, desperate race up the ice to catch Fehr.)

Drouin did not play like that every second of the playoffs for Tampa. He was guilty of a little puck-watching in the defensive zone, a little hanging high waiting for a chance. But there was another desperation skate up the ice to bail out a mistake of Victor Hedman's in a subsequent game, and there were less dramatic moments near his own net that showed he had learned.

Drouin, of course, had been to the NHL playoffs before.

His previous trip the last year was the first act in the drama that led to his refusal to play, the trade request, and ultimately the satisfying resolution that came after. He spent most of that first playoff run in the press box, and when he was in the game, when injuries forced Jon Cooper to play him, there was no coach's trust, no highlight reel defensive plays, but there was a lecture on the bench after a spectacularly foolish turnover.

The argument of the fans—long term Tampa die-hards and bandwagon jumpers both—was that playing Brenden Morrow over Drouin was the wrong thing to do. Morrow, at the end of his career, had slowed by more than a step, and Drouin had all that speed, those sick hands, that spark and that tendency, even he will admit now, to check out of the game for long stretches of time.

Coaches like consistency. They really like consistency in the playoffs. Jo Drouin last year produced wild swings of spectacular highs and deep lows of epic failure. The average of it all might have been better than Morrow's flatter wave pattern, it almost certainly was, but the risk for a coach that something really bad will happen on the downswing is one most bench bosses will pass on. After all, if they screw up, they don't get a seat in the press box, they get fired.

If you're coaching in a development league you eat it. You play the guy anyway. You let him act out the learning curve on the ice for everyone to see and despair over.

You fly on the highs of your star player putting the game on his stick when it mattered and taking the win:

And you crash down to the lows of seeing him watching the other team score without lifting a finger.

Cue the consolation narrative: you can't teach sick hands, you can teach defensive responsibility. It'll be fine, Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, and Connor Brown are young guys. The swings will level out at an average that's nice and high. It'll be fine.

It likely will be fine. Kapanen, maybe through chance or some intention on his part, seems to time his highs for the right moments. He was riding the first big upswing in his play before the World Junior Championships. He put his head down and persevered when his good play wasn't showing up on the scoreboard, and the storybook ending was his reward. He was a beast in the playoffs, after he sat out a couple—he's not too big to sit. He never slacked off, and sometimes he carried Nylander when he was drifting around waiting for a chance to come to him.

After Nylander's episodes of inattention, he comes back hard. He has another gear. That is true.

Maybe the Drouin lesson is you can't teach a man to find the desire to use that other gear all the time, or to at least better time your energy conservation. Drouin seems to have gone into the wilderness and found it himself—inside him, where it always was. Or maybe that's just yet another narrative that ignores the work done by the Syracuse Crunch coaches to help him figure it out.

Nylander and Kapanen grew up in NHL rinks. They, more than anyone else in the small group of top Leafs prospects, should know how the game has to be played. Neither of them played junior hockey like Drouin did, on a super line where goals rained down.

Not even Nylander has spent much time as the overpowered star outplaying his peers without much effort. In the AHL this year, there was no light between Nylander and rookies Mikko Rantanen and Frank Vatrano. Nylander was not unique in his abilities or production. On his own team, he was not better than 27 year old Mark Arcobello.

To have taken the crown some fans want to bestow on him of greatest player in the AHL, he would have had to bring that other gear to the rink more often. The Marlies won an historic amount of games with him waiting some days in the high slot for the play to come to him.

If the young prospects on the Marlies think in some small part of their minds that the AHL is just practice, dress rehearsal, and the real show is yet to come, they should check their review. There's a new guy on the horizon who didn't grow up backstage in the NHL, or in a hockey-mad city like Toronto. He's not typical.

But he's got game.

And part of the game is beating out the other guys on your own team before you ever take on the opposition. It's about icetime, status, money, glory, the trust of the coach and the right to be the first man on the ice to lift the cup when that day comes. It's the game within the game, and Nylander and Kapanen both know that one very well too. They grew up watching it. One of them played it well in the playoffs and one of them did not.

This summer is all about that game. Rookie camps and workouts, tournaments and training, and then the real contest starts: NHL training camp. The clock is ticking for all of these young men to find within themselves the ability to play in the top gear all the time.

Game on.