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William Nylander aiming for top rookie status on Maple Leafs this season

Toronto Maple Leafs' William Nylander is pictured at the team's training facility in Toronto, on Thursday, September 22, 2016. Nylander is aiming for top rookie status on the Maple Leafs this season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
October 12, 2016 - 8:26 AM

The hood of William Nylander's Toronto Maple Leafs sweatshirt was pulled tightly over his head as he considered goals for the first full season of his NHL career.

"They're just my own," he said without specifics, "just what I've been thinking about, what I think I can do."

What the 20-year-old thinks he can do is rise to the top of the Leafs impressive rookie class, one that includes Calder Trophy favourite and No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, an OHL superstar last season. Nylander, who carries himself with a cool confidence, wants to outplay them all.

"I want to be the best on the team for sure," Nylander said in a post-practice interview this week.

It's entirely conceivable he does just that.

"He already is really, really good," teammate Zach Hyman said, "but I think he can be one of the best players in the league just with his skillset and what he can do."

The eighth overall pick of the 2014 draft, Nylander dipped his toes into NHL waters for the first time last season and excelled. He rung up 13 points in 22 games, a pace that would have placed him among the NHL's leading rookie scorers had he played a full 82-game campaign.

Hyman said Nylander was best at slowing the game down, often at full speed. The son of long-time NHLer Michael Nylander was able to hang onto the puck longer than most and wait for openings to emerge, a byproduct of exceptional puck skills.

"His eyes are always up," said Hyman. "If you watch him when he's skating he's going fast and he's stickhandling but a lot of guys have their eyes down. He's still reading the play and (holding onto the puck) so that buys him an extra second. And then defenders don't want to jump him because he's got his eyes up and he'll make a play if they try to step up to him."

It's those gifts that make him such an intriguing long-term asset for the Leafs. What will determine his success in Toronto, however, is his ability to improve in other areas.

Leafs coach Mike Babcock quickly grew frustrated with Nylander's intensity shortly after his call-up to the NHL last season, suggesting Nylander and fellow rookie Kasperi Kapanen had to learn to compete harder to get the puck back.

Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe made similar pleas during the AHL playoffs.

Babcock joined the Leafs from Detroit where the team's top forwards, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, were also the most determined. He'll expect similar efforts from Nylander, attributing his early indiscretions to youth while also adding that "it's got to be a night-on every night."

Nylander noticed how many skilled, smart players there were in his first NHL stint.

"They'll always try to beat you in any way they can," he said.

Nazem Kadri, now Toronto's top centre, also entered the league as a skilled player whose play often drew the ire of coaches. He advised Nylander to "not get too nervous" flashing his skill "because a lot of times when you have that type of skill and you make a couple mistakes you tend to be a little more hesitant towards making plays.

"He's just got to understand where to make them, but he's a good enough player to make them so he should have the confidence to."

Nylander's value to the Leafs lies in his knack for creating scoring opportunities every time he touches the ice. His vision, ability to process the game and superb capability with the puck make him a threat, especially in tandem with Matthews. The two, starting the season together on a line with Hyman, could have their way together in the offensive end.

Nylander could easily hit 40 points for that reason (a mark eight rookies managed last year) and compete for the Calder.

Lining up at centre out of necessity to start his NHL career, Nylander will be back on the wing to start this season. Babcock would have preferred that in the first place, noting Nylander now won't have to meet daily with coaches to run through video of defensive mistakes.

"He can just worry about playing," Babcock said, "and spending less time with less responsibility in the defensive zone."

Matthews is already thought to be capable of handling himself defensively at centre and is ready-made offensive threat as he demonstrated with Connor McDavid at the World Cup of Hockey. The 19-year-old is the obvious favourite to emerge as the top rookie for Toronto and the league.

Nylander will have to put together some kind of year to outshine not only Matthews, but the excitable Marner, a shifty winger of considerable skill.

"You'll have to wait and see for the season," he said. "But I'm always pushing myself so we'll see."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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