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Criticize the real William Nylander

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Kyle Dubas took the blame for your bad Nylander narrative

Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins - Game Seven Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Leafs had their final media availability of the season yesterday, which was covered in great detail by Katya. Here, you get a combination of insight, platitudes, and “I’ll be better next year”s. The latter is what we heard out of William Nylander, which is covered in some depth in this piece by Chris Johnston.

Kyle Dubas essentially blames Nylander’s poor year on the contract dispute that prevented him from having a typical training camp and preseason experience. In particular, Dubas takes the hit for that having occurred. From Johnston:

The first-year GM said the blame resided with “me and me alone.”

“We didn’t get it done for training camp, we didn’t get it done to start the season, we didn’t get it done until there was three minutes left or whatever there was left,” said Dubas. “It’s not acceptable. It didn’t set William up to have success.

Nylander doesn’t go quite that far in terms of blaming it on the contract dispute, but acknowledges the weirdness of the situation as well as the fact that this season, his play wasn’t where he wanted it to be.

“I’ve never been in a process like this,” said Nylander. “I mean I was practising by myself for a couple months. It was a pretty weird process, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

[...]

“It was a long process mentally through the year,” said Nylander. “Obviously I didn’t get to where I wanted to be throughout the entire season and in the playoffs. … I think this summer will be a big summer for me in order to get back to where I should be.”

Fans are somewhat understandably annoyed with Nylander. After all, the contract dispute wasn’t something that happened to him. He had agency over his choices, and he (together with Dubas) made the set of choices that led to him not getting signed until December. That’s absolutely his right. However, this is one of those situations where you must simply deal with the consequences of your actions. In Nylander’s case, it was easily foreseeable that the dispute would lead to an acclimatization period that would take place during the regular season.

Left unsaid in all this is the implicit assumption that Nylander’s year was uniformly terrible and that Nylander never captured the heights of his rookie and sophomore seasons. All of Nylander, Dubas, and Mike Babcock’s comments spoke as if this was a universal truth. There’s a performative aspect to this. Nylander gets raked over the coals merely for existing. Imagine if he said “Nah, I think this was a good year”. It looks awful from an optics perspective. The same is true of Dubas.

However, what frustrates me a lot about the discussion of Nylander’s year is that so much of it is surface level. He had 60 points in his first two years, and only 27 in 54 games this season, so he was bad ipso facto. It also lends itself to criticism that goes beyond production and into style of play. He’s soft. He doesn’t work hard. Born with a silver spoon. Can’t win with him.

This bleeds into fan behaviour and opinion to a degree that a casual fan who watches Sportsnet broadcasts and Hockey Night in Canada would not be faulted for thinking that Nylander is hurting the Leafs, particularly with his cap hit.

You can see this in any comment section that has to do with Nylander. If we venture to the Leafs subreddit (usually a terrible idea) and look at the comments of posts related to Nylander, this is quite clear.

I gave him slack off the start but 5 months back and still no drive, effort no anything. [LINK]

What I want to see is Nylander taking the puck to the net once in a while instead of being a smooth skating perimeter player.
Moore and Ennis take that shit to the net and it generates so many dangerous chances. [LINK]

he skates into the zone, looks around for a pass, then either passes it off or dumps it and line changes.
he does nothing if he isn’t producing. a player like Marner can create as well as Nylander, but will also forecheck, backcheck, play on the PK, and grind in the boards.
Willy is too one dimensional right now [LINK]

Nylander should take up speed skating then he can always be where he loves to be on the perimeter [LINK]

This is by no means 100% of the comments, but it’s not at all hard to find these opinions. Frankly, these are simply lazy and inaccurate opinions.

Nylander does spend a lot of time on the perimeter. He’s a playmaker... most of them do. Nicklas Backstrom made a Hall of Fame career out of it. When you look at where his unblocked shots from, using the density map from HockeyViz, it becomes clear that he does get to high-value areas of the ice.

If we look at Nylander’s shot quality, measured by expected goals per (unblocked) shot, he grades out as about league average. Notably, his shot quality is significantly higher than Mitch Marner’s or Nazem Kadri’s. The average xG of a Marner shot is 5.9%. For Kadri, it’s 5.6%. Nylander’s is 6.2%. Regardless of how often intermission panels show clips of him on the perimeter, Nylander shoots from good areas of the ice.

More importantly, when Nylander is on the ice, his teammates shoot from good areas of the ice.

If you want to shoot back that he’s doing this against weak competition... well, the teammate and competition adjusted shot metrics paint him as one of the best offensive play drivers in the league, as I covered here.

Nylander’s year was bad because he couldn’t convert shots to goals, and his teammates couldn’t either. He deserves criticism for that. Hockey is about goals, and a player who consistently is unable to produce them is not a good player. However, Nylander has a history of strong point production and strong on-ice offensive production, especially when paired with Auston Matthews. Even though I have concerns about his shooting ability, he undershot his expected goals by 50% this year, which is a level of underperformance only 4th liners consistently sustain.

Furthermore, player evaluation does not begin and end at looking at a player’s point totals. It bothers me that many in the mainstream media will say this, but then base all their opinions on points anyways, and it leads to silly and verifiably false narratives being spread. If you want to criticize Nylander, there are many reasonable ways to do so. He is spacey. Stormtroopers think he’s a bit inaccurate with his shot. He’s not good in his own zone. He picks and chooses his board battles (often in a smart way, to be fair). He’s not trusted to play centre against tough matchups for a reason. I’m by no means arguing that he’s a perfect player, because he very much isn’t. Evaluate Nylander honestly, and you find that he has far less to apologize for.