October 11, 2016 - 1:53 PM
TORONTO - Just over two months after Brendan Shanahan was hired to lead the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club used its top draft pick on small but skilled Swedish teenager William Nylander.
The selection back in 2014 quickly established the direction of the club under Shanahan, which will be evident this season when a group of speedy, talented young players join the Leafs.
Nylander will be one of six rookies on the opening day roster (all but one acquired under Shanahan) and one of 11 players aged 24 and younger. Two teenagers are in that mix: Auston Matthews, the first player picked No. 1 overall by the club in 31 years, and Mitch Marner, a shifty first-round pick from 2015.
Just how quickly that youth acclimates to the NHL will likely define the trajectory of Toronto's season.
"I think as the year goes on, with how many young guys we have, I think we're just going to get exponentially better than just your average team just because we have so much youth," said James van Riemsdyk, a veteran at 26. "Guys that are just going to get that experience and get better when they get that kind of experience."
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock expressed caution about the flood of youth during training camp, wondering aloud about the effects of that many young players in the same lineup at once. The Edmonton Oilers remain the NHL's cautionary tale of that approach, going too young too fast (with limited defence and goaltending) to the point of dysfunction.
Babcock said his youngest players needed to learn how to play and compete, that chasing points and ferreting around the puck for fun wouldn't work in the NHL.
"That's something that everyone kind of struggles with when you're younger," said forward Nazem Kadri.
Nylander seems aware of challenges the NHL presents.
"There's more skilled guys, smarter guys," he said. "They try to beat you more than players down in other leagues. They'll always try to beat you in any way they can."
Former Blues defenceman Roman Polak recalled how 40-goal-scorer Vladimir Tarasenko needed a year or two to figure out the league. Polak said the young Leafs weren't going to be home run hitters right away. It would be a process and, as van Riemsdyk pointed out, maintaining a high level of consistency for 82 games is a real challenge, especially in those first NHL seasons.
Babcock is the right coach to lead the group. He almost instantly instilled structure and discipline in his first season as Leafs coach as Toronto ranked 17th in puck possession (a good indicator of quality coaching) despite having the NHL's weakest pool of talent.
The Leafs are all but certain to eclipse last season's NHL-worst 69 points with a significantly more entertaining product.
"Younger, faster, more skilled," Polak said of differences in the team.
Kadri led the Leafs in scoring last season with 47 points, a mark that Matthews, Marner, Nylander, van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak (a returning veteran), and even Kadri could all surpass this year. This Leafs squad will hang onto the puck a whole lot more and surely find the back of the net more frequently too.
Babcock might not even have room to fit everyone he'd like on the power play in the coming months after struggling to assemble two fear-inducing power plays last year.
Perhaps a bigger question mark than Toronto's youth is Frederik Andersen, the club's new No. 1 goaltender.
Andersen, who struggled in the pre-season, split time in the Anaheim crease over his first three NHL seasons, offering flashes of superb play and also inconsistency for one of the league's top teams. How will he perform behind a lesser group in his first season?
Toronto once acquired Jonathan Bernier only to learn that he wasn't quite as capable without the Los Angeles Kings' stingy safety net. The Leafs made the biggest bet of Shanahan's tenure when they signed Andersen for five years and US$25 million before he'd even played a game with the Leafs.
The club also penned six-year deals with Kadri and 22-year-old Morgan Rielly, the leader of an inexperienced defence. Toronto is counting on continued advancement from the duo as well as van Riemsdyk, who performed well for Babcock prior to a season-ending foot injury.
The Leafs will sport new uniforms inspired by the past in their centennial season, complete with a logo mirroring the Stanley Cup-winning sweater from teams of old. Despite the old-school look, the club is leaning new-school on the ice. What that product looks like no one can really say.
"You try not to make these bold, crazy predictions at this time of year because again, it's all talk," van Riemsdyk said. "We're not going to limit ourselves with predictions of that nature, but I definitely expect us to be a much better team as the year goes on."
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016