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Top 25 Under 25: William Nylander is #3

It’s time to get the true measure of the most polarizing player on the Leafs.

Toronto Maple Leafs VS Nashville Predators
A true perimeter player, hugging the boards.
Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Player

I think you’ve all heard of William Nylander. Maybe too much after last summer, so how about a trip to the more distant past to a time before that was true?

Cast your minds back to the summer of 2014. The Leafs had just drafted Nylander with their eighth overall pick after choosing Frederik Gauthier in the first round the year before. Are there two more different players on the Leafs? Nylander, not even six feet, a SWEDE no less, was the first of the zippy little wingers taken* by the Leafs. He was far from the last of that type of player selected.

They’re all the rage now, and the trouble with popular things is they cost a lot, but back in 2014, clrkaitken started off his article about the newest Maple Leaf this way:

I’ve thrown a tremendous amount of shade at Maple Leafs Head of Amateur Scouting Dave Morrison over the summer, both in these articles, on this blog and on Twitter. The primary reason for that was simple; I don’t think the Leafs have drafted enough skill, and I think their results have been average to poor for too long to justify Morrison remaining in charge.

However, this past June, when the Maple Leafs first pick in the 2014 Entry Draft came up, and faced with a choice of taking one of two immensely talented players available (William Nylander or Nikolaj Ehlers), or a talented but more rugged option (Nick Ritchie), the Leafs, like PPP’s braintrust during SBNation’s Mock Draft, opted for the most skilled player available, choosing Nylander 8th overall (we chose Ehlers for the same reason but with less in-depth knowledge).

The Votes

Voter Ranking
Voter Ranking
elseldo 3
Arvind 3
Katya 3
Omar 3
Hardev 3
Species 4
Brigstew 2
Fulemin 3
Rahef 3
Emily 3
Will 3
Kevin 3
Gabriel 3
Daniel 3
Helen 3
Jensine 3
Mel 3
Average rank 3.00
If you see something odd, take it up with the voter in question.

Ah, skill. Like a cold glass of water after the longest drought, or maybe the first beer on a holiday weekend, Nylander was a sign of things to come.

Here are those things:

  • Dmytro Timashov
  • Nikita Korostelev
  • Martins Dzierkals
  • Jeremy Bracco
  • Mitch Marner
  • Adam Brooks
  • Carl Grundstrom
  • Vladislav Kara
  • Semyon Kizimov
  • Pontus Holmberg
  • Semyon Der-Arguchintsev
  • Riley Stotts
  • Nick Abruzzese
  • Mikhail Abramov
  • Nick Robertson

And we’ve concluded, after all these years, that he’s the second best of all of them.

* Yes, technically, Andreas Johnsson slipped in ahead of Nylander, but taking him in the seventh round the prior year might just have been the Leafs dipping their toe in the water of this brave new world where you picked players by their skillset, not their height.

Five years is enough time to find everything that’s wrong with a player as well as what’s right, so no one is ever going to feel again the way they felt when the Leafs didn’t draft Nick Ritchie, Not unless you actually enjoy watching an excellent player play hockey.

I know you think you’ve seen it all, but just watch this:

Now, here’s the thing. Shooting is not his best skill.

Evolving Hockey

It’s not like he’s bad at it, mind you. We can quibble over how close to average his personal shooting is, and ask if we’re sure we have enough data to know if that’s a true read on his innate skill, but that’s just going to leave a bunch of split blond hairs scattered around.

Any time you get a winger more than one standard deviation above average in his impact on the Offensive Goals For category, you want that guy on your team. But it’s Nylander’s contributions to driving offensive shot share (Off CF) that is his best skill. That purple bar, happily more than two standard deviations above average, is all of that zone exit and zone entry ability, that tenacious board play, that puck-carrying drive up the neutral zone — all those things the nerds and stat heads and weirdos in this hive mind of a hockey blog who just won’t look at his points last year and start complaining in the most strident terms keep claiming are great.

They’re great.

Driving play is great. We did not fight the Corsi wars of 2013 on this very site to end up today having to reteach the lesson that Corsi For % correlates to future success, while things like goals and points and plus-blasted-minus do not.

Nylander, for a winger on the Leafs, has decent defensive impacts on Corsi and Expected Goals against. And the overall result is that he makes everyone else on the ice better because he’s dragging them all up to the right end of the ice where the fun happens.

You may have noticed that the Leafs lean just a touch heavily to offence.

Offence is not that highlight video you just watched. That seems silly to say, doesn’t it? But it’s true. Shooting the puck past the goalie is important. They don’t put on the red light for a zone entry, but they don’t put on the red light at all if you ain’t ever in the zone.

Someone shoots the puck, and most of the time they miss or the goalie makes a save, but sometimes they score. Before they can even try, though, someone passed them the puck, and before that someone passed him the puck, and before that someone got the puck over the blueline, and before that someone took it up the ice through the neutral zone, and before that someone passed it up ice to him, and before that someone got it out of the defensive zone. It’s almost like this is a team sport or something.

Let’s forget all that passing and carrying and do stats like it’s 2015 for a second.

Go to War on Ice (okay, Natural Stat Trick is standing in) and look at three years, because back then we knew enough to do that, and then choose score and venue adjusted, on-ice at five-on-five for all forwards, and rate that out for all players with at least 1,200 minutes. We knew enough to do all of that back when Nylander was just drafted.

I’m not going to look at anything but Corsi For %. I’m not looking for a relative stat or one of the more complex rel-tm stats, none of that. Just Corsi like it’s five years ago. William Nylander is not top of that list because Patrice Bergeron is (of course). William Nylander is 65th. In the NHL. Which the last time I totted it up had 93 first line forwards.

Does that mean he’s the 65th best forward in the NHL? You know, people used to think that. They desperately wanted a single number stat to just tell them who was good and who was bad, no thinking required, and no attention paid to the complexity of hockey. They wanted a substitute for looking at his boxcars and yowling.

There’s no such thing.

We have to look at all the complexity of an NHL player with all our modern tools and then we have to think about it. I could do that, but instead of reinventing that wheel, I’m going to the very best wheel store for all things Nylander, and I’m going to quote you some Arvind:

Nylander is an outstanding passer and transition player, so it makes sense that his impacts on shot generation are well above-average, which drives his excellent shot and expected goal differentials on the whole. He grades out as average defensively by these measures (not pictured) which also makes intuitive sense. These play-driving numbers have Nylander knocking on the door of the truly elite players in the league. Which is to say, from the perspective of tilting the ice in his team’s favour, it’s hard to ask any more of Nylander.

[T]his is the third straight year that Nylander has underperformed his expected shooting percentage. At some point, we have to stop expecting his shooting to revert, and consider the possibility that he’s simply not an effective shooter. While his shot seems good superficially, he has at times struggled with getting it on net. Over the course of his career, just 52% of Nylander’s shot attempts have ended up on target, with the league median for forwards in that time being 58%. Even when his shots make it on target, only 7.5% of them go in, compared to the league median of 9.25%. At a certain point, the eye test takes a back seat to three years of shooting data.

The Leafs have a partial remedy to this, which is to keep him tethered to Auston Matthews. Matthews is one of the best shooters in the league, covering for Nylander’s weakness in converting chances, and Nylander, as one of the best play drivers in the league, helps Matthews spend more time in the offensive zone, where he’s at his best. Matthews is one of those special players who will always be better than their play driving metrics say they are. Every game, we have more and more evidence that Nylander is the opposite.

And about last season in particular:

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.

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.

The Voters Speak

Brigstew: I ranked Nylander because I think he is ready for a big turnaround year, while also thinking that Marner’s season last year isn’t quite as hot as some people think. I think Tavares and Marner make each other better the same way Matthews and Nylander do. We’ll see how each of Nylander and Marner do this year assuming they both have a full season on the team. Don’t @ me Rich Marner fans.

Arvind: I’ve spilled enough digital ink on Nylander over the course of this past year, so there probably isn’t a need for me to do much more, but here I am anyways. I still think Nylander is a solid 1st line winger - my biggest concern about him is that he’s had three straight years of mediocre shooting results at 5v5, and if he can’t sort that out, my projection of him as a 1st line winger is too rosy. Nonetheless, his play driving can’t be argued with, and the fit between him and Matthews is too perfect to deny any further. He’s a brilliant player.

Hardev: I like Nylander a lot. I think he has a diverse skill set and work ethic and has been able to be a major positive force everywhere he goes. I hope I can stop pumping his tires so much online this season because he’ll do that himself with that good ol’ shooting percentage. He has it in him to be “dominant” and I can’t wait to see it because when he’s on, there’s not many other players I like watching more than Willy Ny. He probably won’t score 90 points like I’ve been tweeting, but hey, one can only hope.

Regression, Expectations and Spin

If Nylander’s performance last year was spun by everyone from HNIC to Kyle Dubas, Mike Babcock and Nylander himself as a horrible, no good, bad year best forgotten, the expectation for this season is that he will bounce back right on cue. Regress to the mean, in other words. But fans might be actually thinking and expecting this regression to be more than just to the mean. They might actually expect some huge ballooning set of points unknown in Leafs land since ... well, you can read the Marner article soon if you want to talk about that. Instead, we should take onboard an important fact:

Regression doesn’t always come on time. Whoa, whoa, whoa.

There is no guarantee, even if Nylander spends every second on the ice playing with Auston Matthews, that everything will not only snap back to normal, but will exceed normal, and he’ll score goals like he’s playing in the World Championships again. The hype machine has swung into overdrive on this score, and everyone who doesn’t still hate him for not trying last year is expecting him to make up for it in some form of cosmic justice that just doesn’t exist. It is more likely he hits his own career averages or something like them, than that he has a year like last year. But it isn’t written in the stars.

With soaring hopes comes the risk of dashed expectations. Which is how we got to where we are today, with a player as good as Nylander, as gifted at all the things that make a team succeed, who can be reviled and derided in terms that would leave you thinking he’d been a draft mistake on the order of Nick Ritchie.

That anyone could have ever put forth the idea that the Leafs would be better without him, at any pay rate, and not get laughed out of town is a sorry fact of life. Maybe this season we can all try to get our emotions in check and just take it as it comes. Don’t expect some huge puffed up set of points to make up for last year, and don’t expect him to be the weak and helpless perimeter floater of myth and legend. Pretend he’s a new player you’ve never seen before and see what you see with fresh eyes.

Do expect a lot of nice clean zone entries, though, and all that other junk the nerds like.