William Nylander has been one of the more divisive Leaf players over recent years. He’s labeled as a bonafide first-line winger by some, and a soft under-performer by others. Below I take a deep dive and look into the effect Nylander has had on every player he’s played with since he started full-time with the Leafs. Despite what the critics say, William Nylander is a key member of this team and will be for years to come.
Also, since this article is focused on Nylander's impact on a full-time line, all of the below stats are at 5v5. I’ve looked at any lines Nylander has spent > 100 minutes with at 5v5 during his time with Toronto.
Rookie Year — Kadri/Komarov to Matthews/Hyman
In his first year, Nylander split time between flanking Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri. On Kadri’s line, Nylander saw much tougher usage as he was used on a line with the Leafs go-to defensive forwards, Kadri and Leo Komarov. The line still struggled a bit which may have been the reason Babcock eventually moved Nylander to a line with Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman. When Nylander switched lines, we saw early glimpses of what he could do at 5v5 as the Hyman-Matthews-Nylander line dominated in terms of possession but got a little unlucky and finished with a GF% less than 50%. The Hyman-Matthews-Nylander line saw much better results together than when they were separated and as seen below, this tends to be a theme when players are paired with Nylander.
Sophomore Slump — Tough Usage with Hyman/Matthews
Despite his scoring struggles after signing his 6-year contract, 2017/18 was Nylander’s worst season. He struggled a little bit in terms of possession and Matthews was actually better in his limited time away from Nylander than he was with Nylander and Hyman. Part of this was due to usage as Babs played the Matthews line a lot more in the defensive zone than in their 1st year together. As far as Nylander’s career goes, this season remains an outlier as he was more lucky than good.
Post Holdout Resurgence Despite Scoring Struggles
As I mentioned above, Nylander had some scoring struggles when he came back to the Leafs midway through the 2018/19 season. His possession numbers, however, remained outstanding. The reason a lot of people were frustrated with the criticism of Nylander during season is due to the fact that he drove play so well at 5v5 but this just unfortunately didn’t transfer to the score sheet. Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander was a dominant line at 5v5 and put up numbers similar to Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak. Nylander’s effect on Patrick Marleau during Marleau’s worst season with the Leafs remains baffling as Marleau’s only success during this season came when he was paired with Kadri and Nylander. The writing was on the wall, Nylander was ready to breakout and the puck luck couldn’t prevent him from doing so in the long-term.
Continued Dominance under Keefe
Like I said earlier, the Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander line was unbelievable in their time together (Side note: I miss Mango). I will admit, the one player who thrives away from Nylander (as well as with Nylander) is Auston Matthews but that’s expected given Matthews talent level. What is extremely impressive is the effect Nylander has had on John Tavares thus far. JT came to Toronto to play with elite talent and he’s doing just that by playing on a line with Nylander. Much like the 18–34–88 line, the Kerfoot-Tavares-Nylander line put up great numbers at 5v5 in 2019/20. No matter where Keefe has slotted him in the lineup over the past two seasons, the Leafs see better possession numbers with Nylander on the ice and he’s seen much better puck luck over the past two seasons. The puck luck point is a large part of the reason why the perception of him is starting to change among a certain portion of the fan base.
Early Season Success with Vesey-Tavares
The sample size in this season is too small to draw any conclusions but Nylander numbers continue to impress so far. JT’s numbers take a dip away from Nylander and after years of carrying wingers in Long Island it appears as though JT finally has a winger who’s returning the favour. I have not been a big fan of Vesey’s play thus far but the Nylander-Tavares pairing seems to gel better with Vesey than they do with Mikheyev. Given the success of Thornton-Matthews-Marner, I’d like to see Keefe try Nylander-Tavares-Hyman when we get Jumbo back. Other options we could see on that line are Robertson or the speculated trade target, as reported by Friedman. Either way, I’d expect to contiue to see positive results out of Tavares and Nylander as they are both elite weapons that seem to thrive together.
Other Statstics and Conclusion
Over the past two years Nylander has turned into an elite 5v5 scorer. In 2019/20 he finished in the 92nd and 90th percentile among NHL forwards in 5v5 goals and points respectively. He continues to produce at similar rates so far in 2021 and his power play scoring has also seen a huge increase. His 9.43 power play points/60 ranks him 24th among NHL players with more than 20 minutes of PP time this year. In that category, he ranks right behind Alex Ovechkin and just ahead of Mitch Marner, pretty good company if you ask me.
He may not be physical but Nylander’s hockey sense and his puck handling ability are elite in every sense of the word. He continues to be one of the best transition players in the entire NHL. The Leafs now have two dominant pairs in Matthews-Marner and Tavares-Nylander. To give some perspective, Mats Sundin likely would’ve killed to have a guy like Nylander paired with him throughout his time in Toronto (shoutout Alex Mogilny). Nylander’s contract will continue to look better and better as the years go on and thankfully we no longer have to listen to Brian Burke suggesting a Nylander trade every other weekend on HNIC.
At the end of the day, the big 4's success will be defined in the playoffs and if the Leafs see a little more puck luck than they did against Columbus, I’m confident this group will end the drought. Despite people claiming that he disappears, Nylander was 2nd on the Leafs in points and goals/60 in the play-in round last season. We will need Willy, and the rest of the big 4, to score more going forward for the team to find success in the playoffs. There is no doubt they are the most talented set of forwards this franchise has seen since the expansion and William Nylander will be a big part of a long playoff run real soon.
To conclude, if you are in an argument with someone who continues to complain about Nylander’s effort, I find it’s best to remind them that this is the same market that booed Frank Mahovlich out of town because he didn’t appear to put in “effort”. Mahovlich went on to help the Habs win two more cups and we haven’t won a cup since Mahovlich left. Don’t let Nylander’s perceived “floating” fool you, Willy is exactly the kind of player you need to win cups, just like Mahovlich was. We can and we will achieve success in the playoffs with William Nylander.
All stats from Natural Stat Trick (http://www.naturalstattrick.com/)