As William Nylander walked down the hallways of the Air Canada Centre — downcast because Sweden was going home without a medal — you got the sense that the young Maple Leafs prospect was getting comfortable with his surroundings.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Nylander. “They showed me a good time in Toronto. I love the fans. Hopefully, I can come back some other time and play here.”
Nylander’s Team Sweden lost the world junior bronze medal game 4-2 to a jubilant, plucky bunch of Slovaks — the Cinderella team of the tournament.
“We wanted to win. When you play for the bronze and you come away like this (with no medal), it’s not good enough,” said Nylander.
Nylander was one of three Leaf prospects playing for a medal on Monday night, with Frederik Gauthier of Canada facing Russia’s Rinat Valiev for gold in the main event.
“All three have been key contributors to their team in different ways,” said Steve Staios, manager of the Leafs player development program. “Just the experience of them being on this type of stage, and seeing how they were able to handle the pressure and play in these situations, we couldn’t be happier.”
The Swedes — perhaps because of Nylander’s presence — were the de facto home team at the ACC through the preliminary round when Team Canada was in Montreal. With three goals and seven assists, he led Sweden in points.
“He’s a great talent, a dynamic player,” said Swedish coach Rikard Gronborg. “He handled the pressure pretty well.”
Nylander is the Leafs’ top prospect, an eighth overall pick from the 2014 draft who returned to MoDo of the Swedish league after being one of the last cuts from camp.
“It was a great experience being here,” said Nylander. “Hearing the fans chant after a goal.”
Staios gushed about all three Leaf prospects.
“William has brought offence and dynamic play,” said Staios. “He showed his speed, creating offensive chances, speed through the neutral zone. The power play really did run through him, him on the half-wall. They had success with him running it.
“We saw what we knew we had in William. But for him to show it on a stage like that and be a key contributor to the team, and have such a great tournament, was great for him and for all of us.”
Valiev, a third-round pick last summer, was a key part of the Russian blue line and ran the power play.
“He was out in key situations, late in games when they needed a goal five-on-five, power play,” said Staios. “He makes that great first pass. His all-around game seems to be pretty good.”
As for Gauthier — picked 21st overall in 2013 — his skating has improved considerably and his defensive awareness and ability to forecheck sees him destined to be a coach’s favourite, even if he has trouble scoring.
“Freddie is moving forward in the right direction,” said Staios. “I feel like his skating has improved as well. For a big man, sometimes it takes some time.”