In selecting William Nylander with the eighth overall pick in this weekend’s entry draft, the Leafs chose speed, skill and pedigree over size.
But there is speed and there is haste and while the Leafs moved to acquire the first they are clearly leery of the second.
The draft produced an encouraging pick in Nylander and a reshuffling of the defence with Czech Roman Polak acquired from St. Louis for Carl Gunnarsson.
But seismic change to a team that finished out of the playoffs doesn’t seem especially likely.
For one thing, the Leafs have 12 players signed and $20 million to fill out the roster. They need to decide on unrestricted free agents Dave Bolland, Nikolai Kulemin, Jay McClement, Paul Ranger and Mason Raymond. They have restricted free agents Jake Gardiner, James Reimer, Cody Franson and Carter Ashton to deal with as well.
Team president Brendan Shanahan reiterated his desire to return Bolland once free agency opens July 1 but the pool of unrestricted talents is shallow and the Leafs invested heavily last season in David Clarkson.
“I think if you are relying on July 1 every year you are putting yourself behind the eight-ball,” Shanahan said.
Nylander is five-foot-nine and 169 pounds, seven inches and 46 pounds less than last year’s first rounder, Rimouski centreman Frederick Gauthier.
The first Swede taken by the Leafs in the premier round since Alexander Steen in 2002, he is also offensively gifted and an extraordinary skater. “He might be the most skilled player in the draft,” appraised Leafs GM Dave Nonis. “There’s just so much upside, potential first-line upside,” said Leafs scouting director Dave Morrison.
William played with his father, Michael, in Sweden last year with Modo which is neat since the elder Nylander four times appeared on the Swedish national team with Mats Sundin who you may have heard of before. Shanahan was involved in researching Nylander’s personality and found plenty of former teammates anxious to vouch for his character.
The Leafs have options with Nylander who was born in Calgary but returned to Sweden when he was 14. Unlike North American 18-year-olds, Nylander can be tutored as a Marlie. Another year in Sweden could also be in the offing. Nylander is listed as a leftwinger and centreman so unless something major happens, he is more likely to find NHL work on the wing.
Playing with men last season in the Swedish Elite League Modo might speed his development. “I’m pretty sure it might help me a little bit to make the transition if I get the chance to play in the NHL,” he said
Polak figures to fit in between three and six on the Leafs depth chart and the loss of Gunnarsson, the longstanding partner to Dion Phaneuf signals a greater role for Jake Gardiner or Morgan Rielly. Polak gives the Leafs a needed righthand shot from the blueline and is prized for his toughness and skating ability.
The Leafs grabbed Russian-born defenceman Rinat Valiev in the third round and then went into the US development system for New Jersey native John Piccinich, a winger and Dearborn, Michigan-born centreman Dakota Joshua. American Nolan Vesey and Swede Pierre Engvall represented the Leafs final two choices.