Years of futility on the ice and a history of disastrous draft-day decisions made it nearly impossible for anyone within the Maple Leafs organization, or any fan outside of it, to be truly optimistic about the club's future heading into the 2014 draft.
They were bad. Like, real bad. Fresh off a sixth-place finish in the Atlantic Division in 2013-14, one that saw the club miss the playoffs for the eighth time in nine years, the Maple Leafs had the No. 8 selection in June's entry draft. A projected top-five prospect named William Nylander slipped further than expected and, with that pick, the Maple Leafs finally started to turn it all around. Nylander was the first step on the bridge back to respectability, showing star potential while averaging over a point-per-game over parts of two seasons in the AHL before getting his first taste of The Show last year.
While he might be slightly overshadowed by super-rookie Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for now, he's looking more and more like one of the best young players in the game.
With a goal and an assist on Thursday, Nylander set a Maple Leafs rookie record with points in 10 consecutive games. The 20-year-old broke the nine-game mark set by Gus Bodnar in 1943-44, and later matched by Bob Nevin in 1960-61 and Dan Daoust in 1982-83. Being one of four players with a nine-game streak and the only in club history to get on the scoresheet in 10 straight is quite a feat on any franchise, let alone one that is celebrating its 100th year in the league.
It's also, perhaps, unexpected from a guy who isn't even considered to be the best—or even second best—rookie on his own team. Matthews, the 2016 No. 1 overall pick, sits just one goal and one point back of Jets sensation Patrik Laine for the rookie lead in both categories, while Marner, the 2015 fourth overall pick, leads all first-year players with 40 assists. The pair have, by in large, garnered the majority of the spotlight on a club that boasts one of the best rookie trios ever, allowing Nylander to remain relatively under the radar—despite sitting in the top five in rookie points all season.
Nylander has put up 12 points over the course of the historic streak and, since All-Star weekend, he's been the most productive first-year player in the NHL during a year that's been dubbed the strongest and deepest rookie class in at least a decade. In 25 games since the break, Nylander has been a point-per-game player, recording 11 goals and 14 assists with two game winners—four and five points better than Calder Trophy frontrunners Laine and Matthews, respectively.
He also leads all rookies with two game-winning goals and four powerplay markers and currently sits just five points back of Laine for the overall rookie lead.
As Toronto enters the stretch run with a 90-plus percent chance of making the playoffs for the first time in a full season since 2003-2004, the selection of Nylander in the 2014 draft was the first glimmer of light after a dark decade-plus of ineptitude at the hands of John Ferguson Jr., Brian Burke, Dave Nonis, et al.
Nylander has seen a complete transformation in the organization since being drafted. Nonis was fired less than a year after selecting the young Swede, and an overhauled front office led by Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan finally have the ship steered in the right direction. Now led by future Hall of Fame coach Mike Babcock, blueliners like Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Carrick have stepped in to play big minutes on the backend alongside another new addition, goaltender Freddie Andersen.
From the front office, to the coach, to the goaltending, to the emergence of Nazem Kadri as one of the league's most effective "third-line" centres, the Leafs have rebuilt the foundation, surrounding some already solid pieces, like JVR, with an injection of youthful talent and now have the organizational stability to properly groom their young stars.
There since Day 1, Nylander is, essentially, the true O.G. of the Maple Leafs' rebuild.