After seemingly becoming the new Phil Kessel in Toronto in terms of producing while still drawing the ire of fans due to a perceived lack of physicality and aloof personality, William Nylander seems to have shed a lot of his haters over the last couple of seasons.
Most of that likely has to do with the fact that he’s led the team in playoff goals (7) and points (12) in 12 games over that time, while the next highest goal scorers (Auston Matthews and Jason Spezza) have just three goals each. He also scored five times in the Leafs’ doomed playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens in 2021 while John Tavares was out and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner failed to make much of an impact. It also helped that Nylander was noticeably far more physical in that series, making it virtually impossible for anybody with eyes to question his impact.
While the criticism of Nylander has always felt misguided, it does seem that the 25-year-old has added some real layers to his game over the past couple of campaigns. During that time, Nylander ranks top-20 in 5-on-5 goals — in the same ballpark or slightly above guys like Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Mat Barzal. Nylander’s goal-scoring explosion has been anything but a fluke, as he ranks 7th in that time in individual expected goals, indicating a high-end ability to consistently create high-quality chances. Below is what that looks like in chart form.
Nylander creates an extremely high proportion of these chances off the rush, which will come as no surprise to anybody who has watched him play for any period of time. While Nylander has been arguably the Leafs’ best transition player for years, he’s learned how to turn his frequent dashes up ice into scoring chances at an elite rate.
Nylander has become really strong on the puck which, when added to his obvious skating, shot and passing abilities, results in a lethal player off the rush. It seems as though he’s made a conscious effort to drive the middle lane more often as he’s aged into his prime and realized that, as good as his shot is, virtually the only way to score consistently in the NHL is to create shots from in tight to the net.
Nylander’s vision and passing ability make him a threat to create chances for his linemates off the rush as well, whether he’s the primary puck carrier or not. In fact, according to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, Nylander ranked in the top handful of players in the entire league in 2021 in terms of the rate at which he was able to set up his teammates for dangerous chances.
Only Connor McDavid, Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Huberdeau and Taylor Hall ranked better than Nylander in this department among NHL regulars last year at 5-on-5. His playmaking ability has always been evident, but he’s now up there with the very elite playmakers in the league while scoring goals in bunches himself in a seemingly sustainable manner.
Over the last two seasons shortened by COVID-19, Nylander ranks in a tie for 26th in total 5-on-5 points despite mostly playing on the Leafs' second line and power-play unit, respectively. It also helps that Nylander rarely misses any time to injury, but it looks like he could be in for a big bump in ice time this season.
The Leafs finally have him back on the top power-play unit playing the wall opposite Matthews with Marner moving into the slot in the bumper spot. Four games into the season playing in that role, Nylander already has a goal and an assist from that spot, while Marner didn’t score a powerplay goal from that spot all season in 2021. While Marner is an unbelievably skilled and creative playmaker, Nylander is a far more balanced offensive player from that particular area due to his superior shot.
As mentioned earlier, Nylander is also an elite passer in his own right and he’s played a big role in the power play looking very dangerous early on without Matthews, who undoubtedly changes the entire look of it. The game which Nylander recorded both his goal and assist on the PP came on the second night of a back-to-back, but the Swedish winger played 22.5 minutes nonetheless, which was the fourth highest total in a regular season game in his career.
He’s playing on the top power-play unit, getting some penalty killing minutes for the first time in his career, and head coach Sheldon Keefe has been putting him out there with Marner and Tavares for offensive zone faceoffs on a semi-regular basis. All of this points to Keefe making a conscious effort to get Nylander more ice-time than ever before, which has felt like a long time coming.
With Matthews now back in the lineup after returning versus the Rangers on Monday night, it’s worth remembering that he and Nylander used to regularly play these roles on the powerplay together. Both players have much improved their one-timers since then and they’ve got Marner and John Tavares in the middle of the ice. In theory, this powerplay unit should be absolutely lethal and Nylander in particular should pick up some extra points there.
Nylander’s increase in ice-time plus his further improved play in several aspects of the game should result in his most impactful season yet, provided he stays healthy, which he’s proven very capable of doing. The Leafs have to be hoping the new look power-play unit with Nylander playing a big role on it will prevent the team's PP from falling off a cliff as it did in the back half of the 2021 season.
As long as they’re able to be more adaptable and willing to make adjustments this time around, it’s hard to imagine it won’t be one of the best in the league. This will play a huge role in the Leafs success or lack thereof this year and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Nylander flirt with the point-per-game milestone this season.
Regardless, Nylander seems to have quieted many of his critics who have been paying any attention and he seems to be in a good position to take yet another big leap forward in 2021-22.
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