Leafs' youth movement begins as Nylander, Kapanen make NHL debuts
Top prospects play against Tampa Bay
This was the night 19-year-old William Nylander was waiting all year for.
Nylander joined three other top Maple Leafs prospects in making his NHL debut Monday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the official start of Toronto's youth movement and a glimpse into where the franchise hopes to go.
The eighth-overall pick from the 2014 Draft, Nylander described his first go-around as a somewhat awe-inspiring experience, one that began with a loud cheer from the Air Canada Centre crowd when he was introduced in the Leafs' starting lineup.
"When you're standing in front of Stamkos on the draw you're like 'This is the NHL'," said Nylander, who led all Toronto forwards with nearly 19 minutes of ice-time in a 2-1 loss to the Lightning.
Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov joined Nylander in playing their first NHL games.
All four prospects made a positive first impression on Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.
"I thought they made plays and played fast so I was impressed with them," Babcock said. "Kapanen obviously has breakaway speed, [Nylander] has skill, Hyman, a relentless worker who can still make plays, and [Soshnikov] I thought was good both ways."
Kapanen was perhaps the most noticeable of the foursome. A powerful skater picked 22nd overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2014 Draft, he logged nearly 17 minutes while firing three shots, including a slick opportunity on a third-period power play.
Most apparent was the speed and skill the prospects brought to a group that lacked both for much of the season.
"It was pretty awesome I'm not going to lie," Kapanen said of his debut.
General manager Lou Lamoriello said it was the club's plan all along to recall the likes of Nylander and Kapanen following Monday's trade deadline with the intent of giving those prospects their first real taste of the NHL.
"They need that type of experience," Lamoriello said. "They need to get their feet wet.
"They need to feel comfortable and when they come to training camp next year they'll know what's in front of them, how they prepare this summer — they'll know what they have to do. It's the right thing."
How many of the remaining 21 games this group of prospects will play is unclear, though all four will be eligible to play in the AHL playoffs later this spring.
Babcock was intrigued to see what they could deliver down the stretch. He's raved all season long about the talents of those formerly with the AHL-leading Marlies, including Nylander with his 45 points in 37 AHL games.
"I want to know who's a real player," Babcock said of his expectations before the Leafs faced the Lightning.
"Just because you did it in the American League doesn't mean you're going to do it here. I want to know who's got upside and who's got hockey sense and who's got determination and who lives right, who's going to be a Maple Leaf for a period of time and who's not."
Babcock said the last time he coached a team with so much youth was in his junior days with the Spokane Chiefs.
Nylander and Kapanen are both 19. Hyman is 23 and Soshnikov is 22.
Toronto also started 22-year-old Garret Sparks in goal, as well as 22-year-old Frankie Corrado and 21-year-olds Morgan Rielly and Connor Carrick on the back end.
Carrick was acquired by the Leafs from Washington in the last of five trades made before the deadline.
Toronto actually outshot the red-hot Lightning (32-28), winners in 19 of 25, and made a late push to tie with three of the kids — Nylander, Kapanen and Hyman — placed together on a line. Hyman had a close chance in the final moments that was stopped by Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Leafs dressed nine players against Tampa that weren't with the club on opening night and seven who made their debuts with the club. Beyond the prospects were Carrick, a former fifth-round pick of the Capitals, as well as forwards Ben Smith and Brooks Laich.
It was yet another step in a roster turnover that began in earnest at this time last year with the trading of veterans like Cody Franson and David Clarkson. The process continued in the summer with the dealing of Phil Kessel and earlier this month with the trading of captain Dion Phaneuf and other veterans.
The Leafs hoped to do even more at the deadline, but were ultimately unable to trade veteran winger P.A. Parenteau, second on the team with 16 goals.
"It did not work out and he's here and he's had an excellent year," Lamoriello said of Parenteau, who sat with an injury on Monday night.
Babcock said the Leafs want to get to the point where trading those like Parenteau isn't on the agenda, when the youth that was on display Monday has flourished and the club is contending for Cups and even acquiring talent at the deadline.
"That's our goal," he said.