With the Leafs having more or less wrapped up a playoff spot, there are a few key things that I’m looking at down the stretch run. Chief among them is the success of William Nylander at centre, in the absence of Auston Matthews. The Leafs have little to no centre depth beyond Matthews and Nazem Kadri after this season, and if Nylander is able to succeed there, it gives them a truly formidable trio of centres in the long term.
So with that in mind, I thought it would be valuable to go game by game and analyze how Nylander has done there since Matthews’ recent injury. For each game, I’ll go through his stats, his main teammates and competition, and how I felt he did. Keep in mind that for his defence teammates and competition, he’ll have faced/played with people who I don’t explicitly mention here — I’ll generally just refer to his most common teammates and competition.
Game 1: Boston
20 CF / 8 CA, 2 GF / 0 GA, 2 primary assists, 6 iCF, 76% xG% (per Moneypuck)
Forwards: Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman.
Defence: Spread out pretty evenly, but mostly with the third pair of Travis Dermott and Roman Polak
Forwards: Fairly even spread among the Bruins bottom 9
Defenseman: Almost exclusively against Charlie McAvoy / Zdeno Chara
Well, it’s hard to get a better start than this. Nylander teamed up with Marner to form a dynamic puck carrying duo, dominated basically every Bruins line they faced, and were rewarded accordingly on the scoresheet.
Notably, these lines they dominated did not include Boston’s top group, and with Babcock able to control the matchups at home, that is to be expected. It’s also not like the Bruins are terribly weak after the Bergeron line — they have some excellent depth forwards.
Also notable is that he did this against the Bruins top pair of Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. This was a really excellent game from his line, and by extension, Nylander himself. Both of his primary assists involved him making excellent plays, and with six shot attempts, it’s clear he was active and engaged in the offensive zone. Just as crucially, he wasn’t involved in anything negative in his own zone. This was a great start to the centre experiment. Nylander played very well against a strong NHL team. This centre shit is easy! What can go wrong?
Game 2: Tampa Bay
6 CF / 18 CA, 0 GF / 2 GA, 0 points, 2 iCF, 28% xG% (per Moneypuck)
Forwards: Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen
Defence: Nikita Zaitsev, Jake Gardiner for a plurality of his time
Forwards: Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn, Brayden Point
Defence: Braydon Coburn, Andrej Sustr
Evaluation: Well, this was a far weaker game. Granted, his linemates took a big dive, and going up against Stamkos isn’t easy, but it was still poor from Nylander. Coburn and Sustr are not exactly a defence group that you’d think could shut down a player as dynamic as Willie, but that’s pretty much exactly what they did. He got little-to-nothing done offensively, which is obviously not good. But what most people worry about with him at centre is his ability to keep up defensively. So with that in mind, let’s see what happened on the two goals.
This isn’t a great look for him. Nylander fumbles the puck behind the net, after which it’s fed low-to-high to Sustr at the point. His point shot is deflected by Kunitz — who Nylander is now picking up in front of the net. Maybe he should’ve tied up Kunitz there, but I imagine the more damning offense in the eyes of the coaching staff is the turnover behind his own net. It’s one of those things that happens sometimes, but when you turn it over behind the net, you’re probably surrendering a decent shot.
Ok, on to the next one.
Again, not fantastic. I don’t think Polak’s pass was particularly great, given that it was behind Nylander, but the way he handles it puts it perfectly into the path of Adam Erne. He competes well to not give Erne a great shot, but it finds its way in nonetheless. As I said, I put this far more on Polak than Nylander, but if he is able to handle that pass, then they get out of the zone with no issues.
Obviously, analyzing goals against isn’t the best way to get a handle on his defensive game... we don’t see the plays he may have made that prevented shots and chances. However, his overall shot numbers from this game were not positive, and it seems fair to say that this was not his best performance. It also seems Mike Babcock agreed, which is why Nylander played with Tomas Plekanec in his next game, moving back to the wing. As a result, we skip ahead to Washington, where he played at centre again.
Game 3: Washington
23 CF / 17 CA, 1 GF / 1 GA, 0 points, 2 iCF, 40% xG% (per Moneypuck)
Forwards: Zach Hyman was a constant. He started playing wing with Plekanec, but as the Leafs fell behind and looked listless, he was eventually moved to centre with Hyman and Marner to juice offense.
Defence: Very even spread among Zaitsev, Gardiner, and Rielly. Less of everyone else.
Forwards: Roughly even amount of Washington’s first two lines (Ovechkin - Backstrom - Wilson / Vrana - Kuznetsov - Oshie), but more of the latter than the former.
Defence: Roughly even amount of Washington’s top two pairs (Carlson - Kempny / Niskanen - Orlov), but more of the former than the latter.
Evaluation: I think it’s fair to characterize this as another fairly mediocre game. The shot numbers look decent, but the Leafs fell behind early in this game, and score adjusting brings them closer to 50%. Additionally, there was a notable shot quality disadvantage from the Leafs in this game, as they got nowhere near the slot. Nylander’s line was just as ineffective as the rest.
Let’s look at the goal against:
Again, not great. After a terrible pass by the Leafs defense, it seems like Nylander and Hainsey fail to communicate as the former rushes back. They both converge to Carlson, and after his shot is saved, they both converge to Stephenson, leaving Carlson open. Again, it’s unfair to only look at the bad parts, but it’s a goal where you can probably say that Nylander should have communicated assignments better with his defenseman.
So far, we’re at one good game, and two poor ones. Not a great start to this audition.
Game 4: Buffalo
15 CF / 9 CA, 0 GF / 0 GA, 0 points, 4 iCF, 70% xG% (per Moneypuck)
Forwards: Connor Brown, Zach Hyman
Defence: Even split between the second and third pairs, less of Rielly - Hainsey
Forwards: Who cares, it was the Sabres, and he didn’t face much of Ryan O’Reilly.
Defense: Who cares, it was the Sabres
Evaluation: Nylander did pick up a nice power play assist in this game, but since we’re focused on his even strength play here, we will not focus on that much.
Here, Nylander generally rebounded, dominating shots and chances against a terrible Sabres team. He wasn’t asked to play much against the one Sabres forward line worth a damn, and as such, it’s hard to read too much into his level of play against NHL calibre players. He did what he was supposed to - beat up on players who are not nearly as good as him.
Game 5: Pittsburgh
7 CF / 16 CA, 0 GF / 0 GA, 0 points, 2 iCF, 43% xG% (per Moneypuck)
Forwards: Marner, Hyman
Defence: Gardiner, Polak
This was an incredibly matchup heavy game, and as such, Nylander spent essentially all of his 5v5 time with the above players.
Forwards: Patric Hornqvist - Evgeni Malkin - Carl Hagelin
Defense: About 50% Brian Dumoulin - Kris Letang, 35% Justin Schultz - Jamie Oleksiak, 15% Olli Maatta - Chad Ruhwedel
Evaluation: In the aftermath of this game, Mike Babcock called it the best game of Nylander’s audition. It may seem strange to say that of a performance where he was significantly outshot (even relative to his team), outchanced, and produced no offense. But in a hard matchup with one of the best players in the world, Nylander limited him to no 5v5 goals, and relative parity in expected goals. This is perhaps evidence of strong execution in the defensive zone, against the toughest competition possible. I was pretty down on his game when I saw it, but I seem to be alone in that regard. I was disappointed that he didn’t generate much offensively, but I suppose that if you fight Malkin to a draw, you tip your cap and call it a day.
Game 6: Dallas
16 CF / 7 CA, 0 GF / 1 GA, 0 points, 5 iCF, 88% xG% (per Moneypuck)
Forwards: Once again, Hyman was a constant. The other linemate was Marner for half the game and Marleau for half the game.
Defence: Dermott and Carrick primarily, with a little bit of Gardiner, and less of everyone else.
Forwards: The second line of Dallas (Radek Faksa - Jason Spezza - Tyler Pitlick)
Defense: Fairly even split between all three pairs, with more of the second than first or third.
Evaluation: I thought this was one of Nylander’s best games at centre. Again, the individual offense wasn’t there, but this time, it wasn’t because Nylander’s line was ineffective. In fact, I thought they were all over the ice, especially with Marleau replacing Marner. Nylander had a tonne of controlled entries and shot assists, and seemed to always be on the puck, which is exactly where his skillset shines. Defensively, he didn’t surrender that much to me. There were a few shifts where he got hemmed in, but that happens to everyone on the Leafs. He wasn’t asked to play against the Stars’ true .... stars, but the second line of Dallas isn’t chopped liver either. And while he was on the ice for a goal, I think it falls far more on Connor Carrick than it does on him.
That is just a brutal play by Carrick. It doesn’t look good that he’s gliding 15 feet away from the goal scorer, but as far as I can tell, that’s not his guy. The Leafs have 3 guys back to defend 3 Stars players, but they’re not in good positions and the movement of the Stars exacerbates this. This is what happens when you turn the puck over in transition.
Game 7: Buffalo
16 CF / 15 CA, 1 GF / 0 GA, 1 secondary assist, 5 iCF, 60% xG% (per Moneypuck)
Forwards: Marleau, Hyman
Defence: Rielly, Hainsey
This was an incredibly matchup heavy game, and as such, Nylander spent essentially all of his 5v5 time with the above players.
Forwards: Scott Wilson - Ryan O’Reilly - Sam Reinhart was the main forward matchup. However, this wasn’t that much of a hard-match, and Nylander saw plenty of time against other (worse) forwards
Defense: Who cares, it’s Buffalo
Evaluation: This game was pretty similar to the first against Buffalo, except Nylander’s line got more run against ROR. They went a little worse than even against that group, and absolutely clobbered everyone else. Which is a bit of a microcosm for his play at centre as a whole. He is able to go relatively even, if not excel against good players / lines. Sometimes he wins those matchups (against Boston, for example) and sometimes he loses them (against Tampa Bay). He IS able to beat up on mediocre to bad competition, and has proven that repeatedly. That may sound like faint praise — I suppose to some extent it is. However, he has shown more than enough for me to be comfortable with him taking on Tyler Bozak’s current role at any point. There is real value in that! Bozak’s line has consistently outplayed the opposition all year, and given the Leafs a clear win among matchups between depth forwards (notwithstanding their terrible save percentage at times throughout the year).
But if you’re like me, you were already pretty confident that Nylander could be a Bozak replacement. The more interesting questions is whether his stint at centre makes us more confident he can do better than that. One of the Leafs’ paths to glory is if Nylander goes beyond just being Auston Matthews’ awesome linemate.
If he can drive a line against tough competition by himself, then the Leafs can present a totally unsolvable trio of lines that would be the envy of the entire league. It’s unrealistic to expect him to be able to do that yet. Even Auston Matthews isn’t completely at that level yet, and it took a player as talented as Nathan MacKinnon a few years to finally shoot forward into the stratosphere of elite players. In this small seven game sample, Nylander hasn’t embarassed himself against these elite players which is something. Hopefully we see Auston back soon, but given the Leafs comfortable playoff position, any information we get about Nylander’s ability to hold up at centre is invaluable, especially with a contract decision to be made this offseason.
What do others think?
He’s been better against really tough competition than I thought he’d be. But for me the equation is that he must be good enough as a C to be more value there than he is as Matthews’ winger. I’m not sure he’s there yet, but I’m more inclined to think he can get there now than I used to be. I feel like a decently defensively capable C can take Bozak’s job and the overall team is better. So to use Nylander and his elite skillset in that role doesn’t quite add up. Not yet.
Nylander looks competent as a centre, and I have little doubt that he would be already playing this position full time if the Leafs had never won the draft lottery. I do not see him slotting into a shutdown role any time soon, but his speed helps his defensive game, and he could certainly slot in behind Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri in a sheltered role next season. He’s always been terrific in terms of generating zone entries, and his playmaking could bring out the best of any goal scoring winger.
In an ideal world, the Leafs acquire a talented centre for a reasonable price this offseason, and carry the luxury of letting Nylander set up Matthews for a million goals. However, the demand for high-end centres far exceeds the market’s supply, and we saw the Leafs strike out in their attempt to land Joe Thornton last offseason. Nylander’s play makes him look like the favourite to be the third line centre If the Leafs let Bozak walk, as the free agent and trade markets are bound to have more quality options on the wing.
The Leafs carry some flexibility here, and in baseball I would compare this to having a centre fielder who is average defensively. If you can acquire another valuable player at this position for a reasonable price, you can move one of these players to left or right field and build an outstanding defence. Thanks to Nylander’s play, there is no need to force a free agent signing. Nevertheless, the Leafs should always be looking to add talent up the middle.
I also had the chance to ask this question to Justin Bourne, of The Athletic, who was kind enough to include it in a column of his. I’ve pasted his answer to that question below; here is the full article.
I think that there’s a measure of scrutiny applied to his defensive errors that isn’t applied to other centers because it’s always this “audition” thing. I think he’s great out of the middle offensively, and I think he’s fine enough on D, he’s a strong kid. He’s just not the most competitive guy so he has moments where the lack of urgency costs him, but he’ll also make a few slick plays that lead to exits that other centres couldn’t make. I think the team will learn to live with that … eventually. Sometimes he won’t be as tight as he should, but other times he’ll start a breakout that others wouldn’t. That sounds like a fair trade to me.
All stats are 5v5 and courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
How do you think Nylander has done at centre