Canada's Mitch Marner and Sweden's William Nylander, who both play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, will play each other for gold tonight. Photos: Matt Zambonin, Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Inner Maple Leafs rivalry heats up for gold game
Yes, Canada and Sweden have a long and storied rivalry in international hockey.
And, yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a long history of welcoming super-Swedes into the fold, from the pioneer, Borje Salming, to the first first overall pick, Mats Sundin.
But it has been a long time since two young superstars of the game like Mitch Marner and William Nylander have gone head-to-head in their national sweaters while representing the Leafs back in Canada.
This inner rivalry is immensely compelling for several reasons. Although Nylander made his NHL debut on February 29, 2016, he and Marner played their first full NHL seasons with the Leafs this past season.
They know each other, like each other, enjoy each other’s company. And, they have both been central figures in what is a bright Maple Leafs' future. And, they have also been integral to their team’s reaching the gold-medal game tonight in Cologne.
They are close in age. Marner just turned 20 two weeks ago, and Nylander just turned 21 a few days before Marner’s birthday (May 5 to May 1). But although they play for the same team and are young and top players, they are very, very different kinds of forwards.
In a nutshell, it’s simple. Marner is a passer extraordinaire. Nylander is a sniper, a pure scorer with a wicked shot off a lighting-quick release. Marner can stickhandle in a phone booth and fire a pass through traffic to the open man. Nylander can get a shot off when none seems possible.
These assets were evident all year with the Leafs, and they’re equally evident here. Nylander now leads all goalscorers with seven, and is second in points with 14 to Russia's Artemi Panarin (16). Marner is not far back with eleven points, seven coming as assists.
Both players were high draft choices by the Leafs. Nylander was drafted 8th overall in 2014 and Marner 4th overall a year later. But whereas the 19-year-old Marner was returned to junior for a year after being drafted, Nylander played parts of two seasons with the AHL Marlies, Toronto’s local affiliate, developing into a top minor-league player ready for the Big Dance.
In both cases, this was new Leafs’ management, under Brendan Shanahan, playing it safe and allowing the “kids” to develop. A little patience, rare in Leafland over the last several decades, has yielded tremendous profit.
One other thing both players have in common—they were both born in Canada! Of course, it’s no surprise that Marner, a native of Markham, just outside Toronto, was born in him home country. But in Nylander’s case, he was born in Calgary, Alberta, while his father, Michael, was playing for the Flames.
All of this is fascinating back story, but what does it mean for Sunday’s gold-medal showdown? Well, for starters, both players have been key to their team’s offence, so the question will be whether they can continue to contribute, or can the other team’s defence provide suitable opposition to limit one of the two and bring home the gold?
Although Nylander has good passing skills and Marner did score 19 goals in the NHL as a rookie, it’s fairly certain that if either helps his team win gold it will be the result of a great pass from Marner to set up a winning Canada goal, or a fantastic, quick shot from Nylander to give Tre Kronor the gold.
One thing we do know over and above today's outcome. There will be a special handshake after the gold-medal game, and after a summer apart the two will re-join the Leafs in Toronto trying to bring the team a Stanley Cup.