The Leafs’ now-famous Holy Trinity took the league by storm last year, each putting up fantastic rookie seasons. Much of the attention rightly fell on Auston Matthews, who won the Calder Trophy in a landslide. But a funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs.
William Nylander showed he has superstar ability.
And he’s #2 on this year’s Top 25.
If you’re a Leafs fan, you already know an awful lot about William Nylander. We picked him eighth overall in 2014, in unquestionably the greatest drafting decision of Dave Nonis’ ignoble tenure. Nylander’s skill was even then considered top-five calibre, but he apparently sank to our pick due to his reputation of being a “diva.” On the one hand, this was ass-backwards thinking on the part of the league; on the other, it meant we got an elite talent.
Nylander proceeded to dazzle for MODO of the Swedish Hockey League (at the time; they’ve been relegated to the lower league since he left); he was great for the Marlies in 2015-16, then impressed the Leafs in an end-of-year audition. Expectations were high for this season. Willie blew them out of the water.
There were minor controversies earlier in the year, as Willie was shuffled around up and down the right wing and to fourth-line centre. Notwithstanding this, Nylander eventually found a chemistry with Auston Matthews, and, well...
The rest is history. William Nylander put up 22 goals and 39 assists for 61 points. He just turned 21. On any other team, Nylander would be being talked about as the franchise centrepiece. Toronto’s great good fortune is that Willie doesn’t have to be.
Nylander is an elite passer and a deadly shooter. If you watched last year, you got to see him thread needles and pick corners. For a time our zone entry strategy on the powerplay was pretty much “give the puck to Willie”, and it actually worked. Nylander was one of the deadliest players in the NHL with the man advantage—his 26 power play points led the Leafs and were tied for 12th in the NHL, one back of Connor McDavid.
And here’s the thing: Nylander is even better than you’d think.
I’m serious. I sincerely believe that William Nylander is possibly the only forward on the Leafs who is still underrated. Because the deeper you look, the more you see.
Have a look at this chart, courtesy of excellent Twitter folks Ryan Stimson (who tracked it) and Sean Tierney (who put it into the visual.) What it shows are the rates at which a player got individual shots (that’s the horizontal axis), combined with the rate at which they got shot assists (that’s the vertical axis.) Shot assists are passes that led to shots, which you can imagine are pretty neat. This is a limited sample, so there are some caveats, but let’s look anyway:
Would you look at that—Nylander shows as one of the best combined shooting and passing threats in the NHL.
If you’re wondering, the two Penguins off at the top end in shot assists are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Anaheim Duck slightly below them is Ryan Getzlaf, next to Oiler Connor McDavid. The Washington Capital leading in individual shots is Alex Ovechkin. You get the picture. This is the axis Willie lived on last year.
There’s more. Nylander did extremely well in zone entries and shots per entry, which lines up with the eye test (I’m sure we all remember him zooming into the zone and doing a button hook away from the defence while he looks for a pass.) Your Leafs leader in adjusted CorsiRel—in other words, who seemed to be moving the shot battle in the right direction more than anyone else on the team? William Nylander.
In fact, you might wonder whether Willie was actually unlucky not to score more at even strength. While his unit shot the lights out on the power play, Willie actually had the lowest 5v5 on-ice shooting percentage of any Leaf forward not on the fourth line. In other words: his even strength scoring might well get better, if he gets a bit luckier...
...and it might get better because William himself is getting better, because he just turned 21. If you had the pleasure of watching him lead Team Sweden at the World Championships—where his team won a gold medal with him as tournament MVP—you might have seen some of that improvement in action. If Nylander has another level above this one, well—we’re looking at a potential top ten forward in the NHL.
And he’s not even the #1 guy on the list.
William Nylander via Elite Prospects
|�2008-2009||Team Maryland Bantam Minor||AYMBHL||28||25||26||51||12|
|New York Jr. Rangers||QC Int PW||-||-||-||-||-|
|�2010-2011||Chicago Mission Bantam Major AAA||T1EBHL||29||34||27||61||8|
|SDE HF J18||J18 Elit||18||12||14||26||14|
|Sodertalje SK U16||U16 SM||3||3||4||7||4|
|Sodertalje SK J18||J18 Allsvenskan||9||7||5||12||2|
|Sodertalje SK J20||SuperElit||8||1||3||4||2|
|Sweden U16 (all)||International-Jr||7||4||7||11||4|
|Sweden U17 (all)||International-Jr||3||0||0||0||4|
|�2012-2013||Sodertalje SK J18||J18 Elit||1||2||1||3||2|
|Sodertalje SK J20||SuperElit||27||15||28||43||14|
|Sweden U17 (all)||International-Jr||3||2||3||5||2|
|Sweden U18 (all)||International-Jr||10||4||2||6||4|
|�2013-2014||Sweden U18||Hlinka Memorial||4||4||2||6||4|
|MODO Hockey J18||J18 Allsvenskan||0||0||0||0||0|
|MODO Hockey J20||SuperElit||3||0||3||3||4|
|Sweden U18 (all)||International-Jr||14||12||13||25||6|
|Sweden U20 (all)||International-Jr||12||5||13||18||2|
|�2015-2016||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||22||6||7||13||4|
|Sweden U20 (all)||International-Jr||2||1||1||2||0|
|�2016-2017||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||81||22||39||61||32|
|�2017-2018||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||-||-||-||-||-|
|Player statistics powered by�www.eliteprospects.com|
Let’s watch Nylander put the puck in the net twenty-two times. It’ll be fun for all of us.
This highlight reel obviously emphasizes Nylander’s surgically-precise wrister. There’s an odd little effect when you see it, a kind of time-stands-still second where Nylander loads, fires, and puts the puck in before anyone else on the ice can react. It reminds me of 2010 Alex Semin...and I think Willie’s going to be a much more complete player.
At the higher levels of the list, there was one real question this year: should William Nylander or Mitch Marner be ranked #2?
Arvind put the case for the Marner side here:
I think any conversation about Nylander as it relates to the T25U25 has to refer to Marner. I think it's clear that Nylander is, as of right now, a better player than Marner. Marner scored more, but we have some evidence that Nylander got spectacularly unlucky. His possession driving is among the best on the team, and he's certainly shown more evidence of being a shot driver than Marner has. He was everywhere in the playoffs - his line DESTROYED the Kuznetsov line for Washington and they had to rethink their matchups to fix that issue. He's combined spectacularly with Matthews, and I think he could be a solid centre in the NHL tomorrow, if the Leafs chose to put him there. Some all-in-one statistical models absolutely love him - Emmanuel Perry's had him as the ~40th best skater in the league last year, while others are more bearish - I lean closer to the former. And yet, I put Marner above him in my rankings. Essentially, this boils down to the year age difference between them. We can reasonably expect a notable jump from ages 19-20 for Marner, and he himself is a brilliant player - ultimately, that's what led me to rank Willie 3rd.
Annie had a banner one-line description of William:
His hockey is prettier than he is, and that's saying something.
I was one of the most vocal members of the pro-Willie contingent. That’s not a slight on Mitch Marner, who is so awesome it makes me giddy to think he’s on our team. It’s just that I honestly believe Nylander is that special a player. Marner is at an earlier stage of development, and may indeed make a leap; I think Nylander is a moderate level of development away from the very top of the NHL.
Sweden has been very good to Toronto over the years, giving us franchise legends like Borje Salming and Mats Sundin. I think Willie has the potential to take his place alongside those names. I can’t praise him more highly than that.