A lot has been said and written about William Nylander of late.
The NHL’s Rookie of the Month for October has been a hot topic, moved to the fourth line after missing one game with an “upper-body injury” as his Toronto Maple Leafs continued to struggle defensively and top defensemen such as Dougie Hamilton and Jacob Trouba came and went (sort of) from the trade market.
Chief among these narratives, is that Nylander is not only the latest in a long list of skilled forwards who is lazy defensively and inconsistent offensively but he’s also the most expendable of the Leafs’ talented trio of Calder Trophy candidates.
Behind these narrative, beyond the recency bias that has propelled Mitch Marner into the limelight, is that Nylander has run into poor on-ice luck on a line with Zach Hyman — who for all his great qualities isn’t a scorer or a playmaker.
The narrative of the inconsistent game-to-game performer offensively is easily debunked. For most highly-skilled scorers or playmakers, a dry spell is often intrinsically linked with luck. For Nylander, who had played 42 games in his career before finding himself on the fourth line with Ben Smith and Matt Martin, this has proven to be the case.
In the 11 games Nylander has scored in (including last season), he has registered 38 shots (3.5 per game). In the 31 where he hasn’t, he has registered 55 shots (1.8 per game). By contrast, fellow rookie Mitch Marner has generated with nearly identical, though slightly less consistency. Marner, who has 20 shots in the six games he has scored in (3.3 per game), has registered 27 shots in the 16 when he didn’t (1.7 per game).
This season, Nylander’s consistency, from a games-with-a-point basis (57%), ranks him among the best rookies in recent memory. Recent Calder Trophy winners like Nathan MacKinnon (33%), Jonathan Huberdeau (42%), Gabriel Landeskog (49%) and Jeff Skinner (54%) were actually less consistent at creating offence on a nightly basis than Nylander has been — thus far.
But what about the perceived defensive laziness? Because that’s something that we see with our eyes. There’s no metric that tracks work ethic without the puck. In theory, Nylander’s positive shot ratios (he’s a 52CF% player, good for second among Leafs forwards) suggest he’s a sound defensive player who isn’t a liability in his own zone.
But how much of that is a product of his most common linemates, Auston Matthews and Hyman (ranked first and third respectively in terms of Leafs forwards’ shot ratios)? The trio’s WOWYs don’t tell a deep enough story, limited by their sample size. A brief picture tells us both Matthews (from 55% to 47%) and Hyman (from 56% to 45%) have seen their possession ratios dip without Nylander.
Offensively, it appears, Nylander can do things like this on a consistent basis:
In order to get a better idea of how Nylander plays away from the puck and away from his regular linemates, I have broken down each shift (excluding the PP) from his first game on the fourth line against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday, November 29. The conclusions drawn are meant to be descriptive in nature, and maybe illuminating, but certainly not a definitive guide to Nylander’s defensive play.
On his first shift of the game, on a line with Ben Smith and Matt Martin, Nylander scrummed a neutral zone faceoff to the right wing wall, where Ben Smith engaged in a one-on-one battle. Rather than engage in the battle, Nylander slides above the puck to provide an option for Smith if he wins the battle and defensive support if he loses it, able to quickly close on Edmonton’s carrier. When Smith wins the battle, Nylander uses his stick to poke the puck loose in Smith’s feet so that he can make a pass to Morgan Rielly (out of frame).
After Rielly sends the puck down the ice, and Ben Smith misses the retrieval below the goalline, Nylander recognizes that the puck is being wrapped around the right-wing boards and skates hard to beat his man to the puck and send it back down low to a now-open Smith. Seconds later, after Smith mishandles it again, Nylander takes three hard strides, glides into position above the puck and receives it before quickly turning to make a chip pass to Smith (again) off the boards.
On this shift, Nylander is engaged away from the puck four times. Twice, he skates hard to retrieve it and beats his man to the puck (effortlessly). Twice more, he supports the play above the puck — taught by almost every coach — and is in the right position to make the defensive play. The latter time, he’s providing support for a pinching Roman Polak.
Later in the first period, while out at 4-on-4 with James van Riemsdyk, Nylander has two footraces for a loose puck in the defensive zone. On the first play, Nylander uses his foot speed to close a gap and create a better odds-on play for the puck than many without his speed would have. But instead of getting inside on his man for stick lift and a potential takeaway, the rookie does the coach-angering drive-by stick check in order to attempt to chip the puck off the boards without engaging. Here, while Nylander worked hard to create the opportunity for a won-battle, he bailed too early and could have committed more aggressively for a higher-percentage battle.
On the second play, Nylander engages in a battle he was destined to lose (too far from the puck to create a real 50/50 battle) with more effort to attempt to rub his man off the puck and nearly wins the battle as a result before it’s pushed up the boards. Here, he worked extremely hard to make the defensive play, and failed.
Back at even strength on his next shift, Nylander is engaged in one puck retrieval sequence. Here, like before, Nylander works hard to race to a loose puck despite being further away than his mark. After getting there quickly (notice how much further Nylander has to travel in the race than his opponent), both players are forced to lunge for the loose puck, knowing one will get there first if the other doesn’t. Here, again, Nylander loses the race by a split second, though not for lack of effort — Nylander was actually off frame a split second earlier.
Positionally, in the defensive zone, Nylander is aware. On one play, midway through the first period, Nylander tracks back into the defensive zone side-by-side Oilers forward Benoit Pouliot. As the two are briefly tangled up, Pouliot pursues pressure down low.
Rather than track Pouliot and stick with his man, which is what many forwards — and teams — are taught to do, Nylander can be seen looking side to side to identify that Matt Hunwick will be the first to the puck, Ben Smith will be his primary outlet, and pressure is coming. Instead of sticking with Pouliot, Nylander goes to the top of the exit to provide an option for Smith. Had Nylander followed Pouliot, Smith would have been easily checked in the high slot by an incoming Drake Caggiula. Here, Nylander’s smarts won out defensively.
On his first shift of the second period, Nylander is involved in another sequence away from the puck. Watch here, as he is the only one to work to engage the puck before it appears as if he over-skates it or gets crossed-up thinking Smith has it by the time he gets there:
One of Nylander’s best plays of the game came midway through the second period, when, after providing support in the middle of the defensive zone, Nylander recognizes that the puck is being wrapped around the far side and skates hard to the boards. When he gets there, having already checked over his shoulder to identify opposing forecheckers, Nylander turns away from the play to outskate his man and carry the puck all the way up the ice for a clean defensive zone exit and offensive zone entry.
On Nylander’s final shift of the second period, he remains active defensively and keeps his feet moving on two separate sequences; first to get back into the play (while also looking over his shoulder to identify attackers) and second to get in position on the wing to give Connor Carrick an outlet and win a footrace to the puck up ice.
In the third period as the game winds down, Nylander, who should be fresh having not played much, shows signs of laziness on a couple of plays along the boards. The first, is Nylander trying to use his stick rather than body positioning and speed to make a weak play on the puck. The second, is over-eagerness as he gets proper body positioning before turning too quickly to move up ice without having won the battle yet.
But there were a number of excellent defensive plays in the third period as well. On one sequence, after getting caught out of position with all five Oilers high in the zone, Nylander does a good job of recovering when he picks up the streaker (Jordan Eberle) and stays with him before disrupting a pass and applying pressure with a stick check that forces Eberle to quickly make a play back to the point where he doesn’t have a defender.
On another play, Nylander does a good job working against a much bigger Pouliot, keeping an active stick and engaging physically before following his man into the corner to come away with the loose puck, clear it, and get a line change.
The Laziness Verdict
There are a few things the tape shows us about William Nylander’s play, and effort, away from the puck.
The first, is that he is actively engaged and works hard in pursuit of the puck when he doesn’t have it. Nylander does an excellent job skating hard for loose pucks and using his speed to close gaps and apply pressure. His speed is his biggest asset and he uses it to his advantage.
He’s also an extremely aware player defensively, particularly when the play is quickly transitioning into the defensive zone. In many sequences, Nylander can be seen checking over his shoulder and keeping his head on a swivel to find areas where he needs to compensate for teammates, get to where he needs to be to receive a pass, or identify an unchecked mark.
In the neutral zone, Nylander also did a good job recognizing when to provide support and stayed above the puck to help his teammates win possession.
Where Nylander can get caught being ‘lazy’ is on the engagement in a puck battle. While many players couldn’t create some of the 50/50 battles that Nylander can because they lack the foot speed, there are times when the rookie’s effort to get to the puck is wasted by a low-percentage stick check, something that has followed him since his time in the Swedish Hockey League.
For some players, the weak stick check is a play that can be taught out of them. For others, it is not — players like the Leafs’ own Jake Gardiner have struggled to shed it. But while the soft reach in is something that the eye notices a couple of times a game, it is not indicative of the player’s defensive effort on the whole or of his ability away from the puck. For Nylander, the whole shows a player who works hard, who skates hard, who is aware and responsible, but who needs to fully engage in a physical retrieval more often... a truth for many players.