The Maple Leafs were faced with a unique opportunity to keep their top prospect in Toronto playing in the AHL, yet they elected to send him back to Sweden instead.

Since 2005, 14 players drafted in the top 10 have played their draft season across the pond somewhere in Europe or Russia.

YearPlayerDraft +1 YearTotal AHL GamesNHL Breakout Year
2013Alexsander BarkovNHL, injured0TBA
Elias LindholmNHL, AHL6TBA
Rasmus RistolainenNHL, AHL34TBA
2012Hampus LindholmAHL, NHL442013-2014
2011Adam LarssonNHL66TBA
Mika ZibanejadSweden29TBA
Jonas BrodinSweden9TBA
2010Mikael GranlundFinland292013-2014
2009Victor HedmanNHL02012-2013
Oliver Ekman-LarssonSweden152011-2012
Magnus PaajarviSweden72TBA
2008Nikita FilatovAHL, NHL90Never
2007Niklas BackstromSweden02007-2008
Michael FrolikQMJHL02008-2009

There is no exact science to developing prospects and every individual person is, of course, unique. That said, odds are that some AHL time will occur, even if only for a handful of games before graduating to the NHL, provided Nylander becomes the player they hope he can be.

Nylander clearly had the skill to keep up with NHLers during preseason. He only scored one goal, but he just missed multiple chances including a breakaway, and off the rush his skating helped him separate from back-checkers and create space. Nylander is small, and he had issues playing between the dots and in the dirty areas — particularly on the wall in breakout sequences — but these elements can be better worked on in North America compared to Europe.

In many ways, several of the reasons the Leafs fought so hard to keep Victor Loov apply to William Nylander as well. The big ice is a much different game; your positioning, timing, and spacing are all altered dramatically, on top of scoring being lower on the big ice.

The only players that did not spend any time in the AHL are a franchise defenseman, a true top line center, and probably another in the making (Barkov).

Ultimately, some fans and media think it is best to get him out of Toronto rather than expose him to the pressures and limelight of this city. But instead of getting his feet wet in a developmental year adjusting to the city, the attention, the game, possibly AHL playoffs and working out with the Leafs staff under close attention, he will try to go from zero-to-one hundred next season in his next bid to make the team.

Maybe the plan all along has been to take it extremely slow with the talented Nylander: Have him spend an extra year in Sweden, get him some AHL time the following season, then eventually graduate him to the NHL. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, and this team needs to take that approach more often than not. Nylander will not have his development hurt by this one bit, but now it is a little tougher to imagine him starting with the Leafs next season and fitting in seamlessly, without needing any AHL time at some point.

It is good to see the Leafs play the long game with their prospects, but this one seemed not that far away and they had an opportunity to push him through under their own supervision, guidance, and management team. They elected not to.


–   I went to the Leafs coaching clinic with Declan during the preseason and got to see two Leafs practices (those not playing, and the game day skate). Mike Santorelli was not playing in the game that night, so he went on with the first group for a hard practice and bag skate at the end. The zamboni came on and out came the players playing that night, plus Mike Santorelli. He completed that practice, too. Then, when it ended and players started leaving the ice, he pulled aside Chris Dennis and worked on his board play; Dennis would chip a puck to the wall, Santorelli would race to get it, drop his shoulder, and Dennis would try to pin him/take it off of him. His good play isn’t surprising to me, or John Tortorella (check the Quotes section below for a quote I dug up). What is surprising is the 11:50 he’s averaging through the first three games.

–  In each of the first two games of the season, the Leafs started strong only to go down 1-0 both times due to a bad goal allowed by Jonathan Bernier. Against the Habs, the Leafs were outshooting them 5-0 before Pacioretty scored, and against the Penguins it was 4-1 before Hornqvist scored. Conversely, the Rangers were outshooting the Leafs 9-4 when Franson scored to make it 1-0. The Leafs are going to need top 10 goaltending if they are going to do some damage this year, and Bernier letting in weak goals to start the opening two games is not going to cut it. Of the 20 players to dress already this season, nine are new to the team and they had to chase the game against two good teams.

–  It gets forgotten but, before Matt Frattin’s run of hot play in the lockout season, he did not make the team out of camp, and was only recalled due to the Joffrey Lupul injury. That’s not to suggest Frattin is ready to produce once he gets back in the line-up now, but this is how he is—a Jekyll and Hyde player. The Leafs believed they were trading a 20-goal scorer to LA when they acquired Bernier; it appears now the best we can hope for from Frattin is the occasional run of hot play. That said, when he’s on, he can win you a game or two.

–  In the summer I broke down the difference in shorthanded goals the Leafs allowed in the two prior seasons, and one noticeable difference in the numbers was an upshot in goals allowed after a faceoff loss. Already against the Penguins, the Leafs allowed two goals (5v4, not the 5v3 goal) off of faceoffs. The first Crosby goal, Bozak actually won the draw, but Phaneuf was slow to the corner to retrieve and Pittsburgh controlled possession. The second goal, though, was a perfect example of the lack of pressure after the team on the power play won the draw. Crosby won the draw, Letang attempted a weak shot that Patric Hornqvist was able to push out wide to Crosby, Crosby threw a cross zone pass clean on Malkin’s stick, Malkin had a quick give-and-go with Letang up top, and #71 was able to walk into the home plate from there and rip a goal. It’s too easy, and there’s no pressure or aggression to get the puck back and ice it. It’s early and the penalty kill needs to develop a rapport and understand how to space themselves properly, but this is something to watch.

–  There are three players who have played for the Leafs that have yet to record a shot on net—Matt Frattin, Richard Panik, and Jake Gardiner. I am not releasing my own data yet, but of the things I’m tracking, Gardiner is sticking out for zone entries against in every way imaginable. Teams are skating it in on him, and dumping it in and retrieving it on him. Players such as Craig Adams have dumped it into his corner and he has slowed down skating to the puck to try and soften the hit instead of simply skating, getting the puck, and moving it. Both games he was under 50% possession wise, teams targeted him on entries, and he doesn’t have a shot on net this season. They could have scratched Robidas instead, but it really wasn’t all that surprising to me that they sat Gardiner.

–  The power play zone entries have been tough to watch thus far. Dion Phaneuf sets it up behind the net, and glides to center ice while everyone in the rink knows he’s dropping the puck to Phil Kessel. Teams are playing right to it with everyone standing above the blue line and a forward on the penalty kill lingering in the neutral zone ready for the drop pass. Phaneuf just doesn’t have the speed for teams to respect him, so there is no threat of him entering the zone off the rush. On Bozak’s goal against the Habs, we can see Eller looking for the drop pass and the Habs players all standing up the line; a simple bank pass off the boards by Percy and skate through opens them right up

The Leafs do well with Franson and Phaneuf inside the zone, but entries are a problem when opposing teams simply have to key in on Kessel and not worry about much else.


[quote_box_center]”I didn’t even know who Mike Santorelli was. He was off the map for me. I found out pretty quickly who he was when he came in the condition he was in and how he just said, ‘I am going to play here, you are not sending me to Utica.’ With no words said to me, just with his actions, he said, ‘I am not going there,’ and he has continued to go that way.”
– John Tortorella, on Mike Santorelli last season.[/quote_box_center]

It is early, and Santorelli has a lot to prove still, but he’s off to a good start leading a line with David Clarkson and Leo Komarov, the Leafs best cycling line to date.

[quote_box_center]“When there’s certain lines going and have some flow, you’d like to see ’em maybe out a little more.”
– Nazem Kadri [/quote_box_center]

That was not the case in the opener, when the top line played awful yet all of them saw over 20 minutes of ice time. Not one other forward played even 15 minutes.

[quote_box_center]”But you know, we’re not the first team to do this, we’re not even the second or third. I’m not as concerned with what they call it, I just see it as information. I don’t know of too many successful organizations, not only in sport but in the world, that don’t want more information. The key is to have the type of personnel that can distinguish what is good information and what is bad information.”
– Brendan Shanahan[/quote_box_center]

I would recommend this read from Hockey Prospectus that offers a look at what is really going on with analytics inside of organizations if you would like a better understanding.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1 – I think I would keep Daniel Winnik on L2 for now, but would not hesitate to put Komarov or even Clarkson up there if need be. Winnik has fit in reasonably on the second line as he offers a good yin to Lupul and Kadri’s yang. The two flashy players get a big body that can forecheck, play defense, and even hang in there skill wise (he isn’t going to score much, but he isn’t killing the play when the puck hits his stick). I wouldn’t sleep on Komarov moving up to that line, though. Albeit against weaker competition in a soft role, Komarov and Kadri drove play well together in the lockout year. While I wouldn’t put too much stock into his 3 points in 3 games already this season, when you consider his scoring last year in the KHL and that he only has 52 NHL games to his name, there is probably a little more scoring to his game than people give him credit for.

2 – I think I would give Carter Ashton a turn on the fourth line, and maybe even Matt Frattin again, too. Richard Panik had a few nice hits on Letang, but otherwise hasn’t done much, especially with the puck. You don’t give up on him after two games, but Ashton is sitting in the press box cold and has not gotten into a game yet. Kozun is somewhat in the same boat; the fourth line has been getting dominated, so you need to rotate players in and out, try to find a combination, or even just platoon it in the meantime.

3 – On the note of the fourth line struggles, I think I would probably, reluctantly try 7 D while giving Ashton an opportunity and cycling wingers through the Ashton-Holland tandem that worked well in the AHL. Gardiner needs to play, and the only D-man you can really sit based on merit is Stephane Robidas, but I doubt they would sit the just-signed veteran with an A on his sweater.

4 – I think going back with James Reimer is a no-brainer. Bernier has struggled early, said he’s banged up, and doesn’t look completely comfortable; every goalie gets beat, but pucks are going through him. If Reimer plays well Tuesday, I’d just keep playing him. Bernier isn’t proven enough to simply hand him the net back without merit.

5 – I think the Leafs are in a tough spot with their forward make-up, and this is something I noted at the end of last season. The top two lines really struggle to play good two-way hockey, although they are showing signs of progress with Winnik on the second line and Kadri improving. The bigger issue is the first line. None of JVR, Tyler Bozak or Phil Kessel are strong defensively, and they are getting run over 5v5 at the moment while the second line plays decent hockey and the third line is playing well. It’s obvious—you can’t win consistently without your good players playing well. The Wild are implementing some interesting ideas with their lines to spread the wealth; while I do think there are some interesting ideas in there, ultimately you need the players or else you’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. For the time being, I think I would rock the boat and split up the top line.