Despite the Leafs many losses this season, the overall mood in the fanbase seems to be one of optimism. Optimism because we finally have a front office that isn't huffing glue. Optimism because we have a top 5 coach in the league. Optimism that we're rebuilding our prospect pool after years of neglect. And along with that last one, optimism for William Nylander.
On Saturday against Detroit, Nylander recorded the nicest assist of his young career, and I wanted to break it down further to show how his skillset can break down set defences, a notoriously hard thing to do in a league as structured and defensively sound as the NHL.
Let's pick things up here. Nylander has the puck in the corner, being kept to the outside by Kyle Quincey (27). Danny DeKeyser (65) is occupied with P.A. Parenteau (15). Andreas Athanasiou (72) is on the strong side, covering Morgan Rielly (44). Henrik Zetterberg (40) is occupying the passing lane between Nylander and the left point (Colin Greening), and Anthony Mantha (39) is covering the right point.
So far, there seems to be no immediate danger. The Leafs are kept to the outside, and while there's room on the right point, it would take a long pass between three Detroit players to get the puck there. So far, so good for the Wings.
The first hint of a problem beings to appear. Nylander has gained a step of separation from Quincey. Athanasiou and Quincey haven't communicated to switch assignments, meaning Quincey is going to be pulled out of position. Given Nylander's skating ability, this is definitely an issue. If Zetterberg were positioned slightly higher in the zone, Quincey could pass Nylander off to him and stick to Greening instead, which would also alleviate some of the concerns.
I'm not an expert on the Wings defensive system, so maybe this is a coaching thing, but to me, Zetterberg is a little late in getting close to Greening, and that also means he's nowhere near Nylander as he turns the corner. Note that Nylander could pass here to Greening, who would likely get a decent shot away, but he chooses to hold it and presumably look for something better.
Uh-oh. Now we definitely have a problem. Nylander has opened up a big gap over Quincey, and Zetterberg is still in no-mans land, covering... nothing, really. Maybe he thought Greening would dive to the net, which would explain his earlier positioning, but at this point, it's clear that's (currently) not the case.
Note that through these three screenshots, Zetterberg's position hasn't really changed at all. This essentially makes passing Nylander off to another defender impossible - there's no one near him. And you don't want to see someone as skilled as him with that much space in the offensive zone.
Nylander has left Quincey in the dust now, and has effectively created a 5v4 as soon as he steps into the open space in front of him. Importantly, a defenceman is now out of the play, meaning that of the four Red Wings below the puck, three are forwards (and two of those three are rookies).
Mantha has recognized the danger of Nylander and is in the midst of (correctly) leaving Marincin to cover the primary danger of Nylander going to the net. Once again, Nylander could make a safe pass to Marincin, who would get an unmolested shot on net. Once again, he chooses to keep the puck and look for something better.
Mantha is in the process of getting worked by Nylander here, which isn't too surprising. Nylander is moving forwards with speed, while Mantha is trying to keep up from a standstill. Mantha is also a 21 year old rookie playing his 10th NHL game. Nylander goes wide on him with ease, while Greening smartly heads straight to the front of the net. Notably, he is puck-side of Zetterberg, which is a problem (though the Swede is clearly fighting pretty hard to change that).
Whether that's a function of Zetterberg being a little slow on this play, or Greening acting quickly is unclear to me, but right now, the Leafs are in a great position. Nylander has a runway to go straight to the net, with a teammate close by. This is a bad spot for the Wings.
Mantha continues to get worked by Nylander, who is now in on net and has a clear shot, if he wants to take it. Zetterberg and Greening are still fighting to get to the net first, but it looks like the Leaf is winning that battle. DeKeyser and Parenteau are still tied up in front of the net, as they have been for most of this play.
At this point, it's basically DEFCON 1 for Detroit - they're in scramble mode and need to pray that Nylander messes up, Howard makes a great save, or that a desperation play by a defender works out.
Nylander gets Howard to commit and begins his pass. Despite the crowd in front of the net, the two Leafs are arguably in the best position to get on the end of Nylander's path.
Greening has beaten Zetterberg to the net, and Parenteau is doing well in his battle with DeKeyser. As much as this goal is due to some great play by Nylander, the other two forwards did well too.
Nylander's made the pass and now its up to Greening to put it home. The reverse angle (not screencapped) shows that the pass actually beat Greening to the spot, but it fortuitously bounced off a skate and stayed in the crease area. Zetterberg makes life tough on Greening by tying him up a little bit, but the former Sen is able to get his stick on the puck and poke it home past Howard, who has no real chance here. Just like that, the Red Wings lead is cut in half, on what seemed like a relatively innocuous play. Here's the video of the goal.
So obviously, there were mistakes from the Red Wings defensively on this play. There almost always is in hockey - it's really really hard to score. But having the skillset to punish these mistakes so heavily is what makes Nylander so exciting as a prospect.
I talked a lot about the positioning of the Detroit players, and sort of glossed over what Nylander did, but it's nothing short of spectacular. His skating is truly phenomenal, and is largely responsible for creating this goal. He accelerated away from Quincey to start the play, maintained his speed throughout his glide, and easily beat Mantha outside, all in the span of about five seconds.
Just as important as his skating was his decision making here. At different points, Nylander had simple, safe options that would've led to a decent shot attempt. At each stage, he held out for something he thought was better. He could've passed off to Greening early on for a shot from the top of the circle.
He could have passed to Marincin on the right point once he got to the middle of the ice. He could've shot once he beat Mantha and was in on goal. Each one of those plays would have been fine, but were lower percentage chances when compared to the one he eventually chose.
Obviously, that type of decision making won't always work out, but it's an important part of his game - he tries to take chances, and he has the ability to pull them off. That can break games open, and it's something very few current Leafs can do. And that's why there's so much optimism about him.