The Toronto Maple Leafs have a plethora of options to consider when deciding where William Nylander will begin his 2014-15 season. The situation is rather uncommon when dealing with high end draft picks, however the Leafs have the option to send Nylander back to Sweden where he would play for MODO of the SHL or keep him in North America to play in one of the NHL, AHL, or OHL.
I can see each league offering its own unique benefits to the development of the Leafs top prospect. However I believe each potentially have their own drawbacks as well. The most important part to consider when deciding between these four options ultimately comes down to how far Toronto feels Nylander is in his development headed into the season.
The Mississauga Steelheads selected Nylander 13th overall during the CHL import draft a few days after Nylander was selected by the Maple Leafs. Heading to the Steelheads would definitely allow a more seamless transition from the larger European ice surface to the smaller rinks utilized in North America (Nylander did play his youth hockey up until age 14 in North America). Nylander would immediately be slotted in as a top line player and log heavy minutes at even strength as well as on the power play. It may also give him a chance to log some PK minutes though I'm not sure he has done much of that in recent years. He could also take this time to work on his defensive game against less talented players. Overall it would give him some time to develop as a center and a chance to dominate the competition offensively.
The biggest downside would be taking a step back from playing professionally against much more developed men to playing against teenagers and young adults. The quality and depth of competition would not be there night in and night out the same as it would be in higher leagues. Additional Nylander would have to play for Mississauga, who are predicted as a bottom tier team, for the entire season. Sending an 18 year old with that much talent to play for a team you know is going to have a losing season just doesn't seem like the right move for his development.
Nylander only played a portion of the season in Sweden with the top tiered MODO. The rest of his time was spent in Sweden's second league. Sending Nylander to play in either the AHL or SHL both have some similar advantages. The first and most obvious would be playing against a higher level of competition with more physically mature players. He would be able to spend a full season making sure his body can handle the rigors of playing against stronger opponents. He would also be playing with higher caliber teammates which I only assume would help him break the stigma of being a selfish player. Both leagues also allow for a free year (up to two years) of development before the entry level contract kicks in so long as Nylander plays less than 10 NHL games.
However there are some rather large differences between the two leagues. The AHL regular season consists of 76 regular season games while the SHL plays a much shorter 55 game schedule. The most notable and often most frequently discussed would be the ice surface. The AHL would allow him to begin his transition to the North America size rink right away with the SHL keeping Nylander on the larger ice surface.
The benefits of the NHL are hard to argue. Nylander would most likely be bounced between second and third line minutes while seeing some time on the second PP unit. I'm assuming they wouldn't keep him otherwise. He would be playing with and against the best players in the world and finding out what it takes to be an NHL player. He could definitely help to balance out some of the Leafs scoring.
The biggest concerns with the NHL would be the same as it is for most young players. Nylander, while not as small as some reports claim, it still only 5'11 170 lbs. Not big, not small, but he could definitely stand to gain another 15 lbs of muscle. Patrick Kane by comparison is listed at 5'11 181 lbs on the Blackhawks' website. Another issue could be his adjustment to playing on the smaller ice surface. Nylander would not have the time of time he is accustom to which could hurt his consistency and indirectly, his confidence. The biggest issue would be the probability of injury increasing due to several of these factors and additionally playing in an 82 game schedule.
In the end I think Nylander is too good for the OHL and not ready for the NHL. Granted I haven't seen him play a full game yet and won't get that chance until the Leafs rookie tournament, I just don't think his body is physically mature enough, especially without any recent North America experience. Without a doubt the AHL/SHL is the best option. It will bring the greatest returns on Nylander's development.
I have gone back and forth trying to figure out what I would do if it were left up to me. A couple benefits of playing in the SHL include less games which would allow Nylander to spend more time working on his strength and muscle mass, and staying on the larger ice surface which would allow him to work on making plays at full speed. A few of the benefits of the AHL include adapting to the smaller ice, playing more games, and getting the opportunity to play with future Leaf teammates. The Leafs also would have a very high level of control in regards to Nylander's development with him playing for the Marlies.
With all of this in mind I believe it will be best for both the player and Maple Leafs to send Nylander back to Sweden to play with MODO of the SHL. Playing fewer games will actually help him develop his overall strength and pack on some extra muscle without having to worry as much about fatigue. Additionally, playing on the larger surface will give Nylander the opportunity to make plays at full speed as well as teaching him how to use the whole ice to slow the game down when needed. He will still be over in North America for the IIHF World Juniors, where he will be expected to dominate, and the end of the Marlies season.
The SHL playoffs end mid to late April which is when the AHL regular season ends. Even in the event that MODO plays through the SHL finals, Nylander will still be able to come over and play in the first round of the AHL playoffs. More than likely he will be able to come over and get five or more regular season games in before the playoffs even start. By this time I believe he will be physically ready to play on the smaller ice surface in a more grinding and pounding league and hopefully help the Marlies make a deep run again.
In the end I would not be too torn up if the Leafs decide to stick him in the AHL right away. I think I've outlined enough positives that it would not hurt his development, however I think the SHL will be the best to help his body mature in the less physical league with less risk of injury.
It is why William Nylander will begin his 2014-15 season with MODO, play a full season in the SHL (with the exception of a few games where he will be dominating his age group at the World Juniors in Canada), then return to Toronto and help the Marlies push for the Calder Cup.
Thank you for the read. I would like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.