Of the three Leafs’ star rookies, it’s fair to say that William Nylander has not set the hockey world alight the same way that Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews have. Nylander has scored less than either of the other two, and while he can be an electric player to watch, he lacks the Energizer Bunny quality of Marner, or the composed dominance of Matthews. The slick Swede has also been singled out at times by the Leafs coaching staff as needing to improve on his defensive game; this criticism has largely missed the other two. Consequently, there has been chatter of trading Nylander to address the hole on the Leafs blueline, chatter that would be dismissed out of hand if it was applied to either of the other members of the Leafs Holy Trinity.
Now, it was expected that Matthews would be the crown jewel of the Leafs rebuild. As the Leafs’ best prospect in... ever, it was almost a foregone conclusion. What wasn’t quite as expected was how Marner has gone supernova, both with his play and personality. He now leads all rookies in scoring, and with the unfortunate injury to Patrik Laine, it looks like he and Matthews will be competing on that front until the end of the season.
Because of the brilliance of the other two, Nylander’s season has gone underrated, in my opinion. I’m of the belief that this year, he’s actually been better than Marner when we look at the underlying drivers that describe their play.
We’ll tackle this in components, looking at their 5v5 play, special teams impact, and how they’ve been used. All stats are score, zone, and venue adjusted, unless otherwise noted, and are courtesy of Corsica.hockey. Also, Sean Tierney of The Athletic had a great piece about the Leafs and passing data, which you can find here, which has some relevant graphs and text for this article as well. While you’re over there, go ahead and subscribe to The Athletic, who are doing really phenomenal work for all Toronto sports teams.
Looking beyond the scoring
Obviously, individual scoring is important, and probably the single most noticeable attribute of a player. And Marner has been incredibly potent in that regard. He’s scoring 1.92 primary points per 60 minutes, which is easily first line pace. Meanwhile, Nylander is scoring at just above half that pace — 1.07 primary points per 60 minutes, which is on the fringes between a typical third and fourth liner. However, that’s a very crude way to look at it. It’s better to look at the inputs that make up scoring. Namely, we’ll look at shot attempts and shot assists (passes that lead to shot attempts for a teammate).
Thanks to the work of people like Ryan Stimson, Corey Sznajder, and Sean Tierney, we have this data, and some beautiful graphs like the one below to help convey the information it gives us. This chart is available here (it’s interactive, so just select the Leafs filter):
In the above chart, the x-axis represents individual shot attempts taken per 60 minutes, and the y-axis represents shot assists per 60 minutes.
Nylander jumps out off the page here. He has similar shot generation to Marner, and creates far more chances for his teammates — in total, he has a hand in more shot attempts than his fellow rookies, and indeed, more than anyone else on the team.
Logically speaking, this means that the shots Nylander is generating, either for himself or his teammates (or both) are not being converted into goals at the same clip that they have for Marner. There could be various reasons for this. It could be noise. It could be that Marner generates more dangerous chances. It could even be that Nylander himself is a poor finisher (unlikely, given what we know of his skillset and his history at previous levels).
One quick and dirty test we can look at is the average shot distance for each of the players. Via Corsica, we can see that they’re almost identical. Marner is at 25.88 feet, while Nylander is at 25.66. I’m comfortable dismissing that difference as insignificant.
A more robust way to look at this is through expected points, described nicely in this piece on Hockey Graphs by Stimson. Essentially, this method calculates the probability of a shot resulting in a goal based on the type of passing play that created it. This is a stronger predictor of future primary points than primary points themselves (similar to how Corsi predicts future goals better than actual goals). More details are in the link above, and I highly recommend reading it if you’re interested in how the sausage is made, so to speak.
By looking at expected points, we attempt to account for shot quality and play type in a way that simply looking at personal or on-ice shooting percentages doesn’t. And when we do, we can obtain the following chart (also courtesy of Sean Tierney and the people behind the Passing Project):
Again, Nylander looks spectacular, even compared to Matthews and Marner. And if you include the entire league, he looks even better:
I mean, Crosby is clearly a mutant, but aside from that, Nylander can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the world by this metric. As can be seen from the above, when we start digging past the counting stats, we see that Nylander has been spectacularly unfortunate at even strength — it would be no surprise to see him start to shoot up the rankings as the season progresses, even if very little about his actual play changes. Marner has been very good, no doubt. But Willie has been every bit as impressive, just without the results to show for it.
More to the game than scoring
Of course, we all know that individual scoring is important, but not everything. This is obviously quite difficult to evaluate at times. So the first thing we should do is establish the context in which Nylander and Marner are used.
Let’s start with teammates. For Marner, this is easy. For the entire season, he’s been on the wing of Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. Nylander has played on two major lines this season, spending the first quarter of the season with Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman, before being moved onto a line with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov, where he now remains.
It should be noted here that Marner’s linemates are generally more talented than Nylander’s, with the exception of the time he spent with Matthews. As I noted in this piece, that Hyman - Matthews - Nylander trio was dominant.
The defense groups are split relatively evenly with both these players. Neither benefit from Gardiner Growth or suffer from Polak Plummets.
As for how these lines are treated ... that’s a little trickier to suss out. The Leafs don’t run a standard top line like many teams. Instead, they spread out their top three lines evenly, and let their fourth line take reduced minutes. We can see the massive game-to-game variation in the 5v5 TOI among the first three lines in this graphic, courtesy of HockeyViz:
Now compare this to a team like Boston, who has a more rigid line structure:
It should be clear how the Leafs differ. So Marner and Nylander play relatively similar minutes.
As for competition, they’re actually relatively similar between the two rookies. This may be unexpected, as Nylander has been on Kadri’s line for a while now, but Babcock has slowly begun to transition ‘tough’ assignments to be spread around the entire team, as opposed to being the sole responsibility of Kadri’s unit. Consequently, Nylander’s competition has been relatively constant despite his line switch. As he switched lines, Babcock also started trusting other groups more to handle defensive responsibilities.
This chart from Corsica is a useful summary of their usages:
Note that Brown and Nylander have almost overlapping circles, which makes sense, given that they were swapped for one another on lines about a quarter of the way into the season.
So keeping the context of their usages in mind, what do we know about their impact on shot results? I’m going to shy away from the use of WOWYs in this context, as the Leafs relatively static lines mean that both of these players (Marner in particular) have absolutely meaningless sample sizes with/away from some of their teammates. Instead, I’ll look at how their respective units have done.
When adjusting for score, zone, and venue, we see that the best Leafs lines by CF% that have played over meaningful minutes both have Nylander on them. In particular, we notice that the lines with Nylander on them have both outperformed the equivalent lines with Connor Brown, who is no slouch in his own right, appearing on two lines above 50% CF%. Meanwhile, the van Riemsdyk - Bozak - Marner group lags behind this somewhat, though they are not a black hole by any means.
Now, it’d be fair to point out that Nylander’s linemates have more of a history of possession success than Marner’s. For all their offensive talent, both Bozak and van Riemsdyk have never had particularly good shot results. Meanwhile, Kadri has spent years as a low-key possession stud, and Matthews has immediately burst onto the scene as one of the very best centres in the game at this regard.
I think that’s a fair thing to note. But on the other hand, it’s clear that it’s a two way street. Matthews does worse away from Nylander than with him (by a significant amount — going from around 58% CF% to about 50%). Kadri does worse away from Nylander than with him, though this is more plausibly explained by usage — in particular, Babcock tends to replace Nylander with Soshnikov in ‘late and close’ situations where the Leafs lead. In addition, the typical usage seen when Brown was on this line was inherently more defensive. However, in my opinion, it was not so defensive that it explains all of the increased performance it has seen since Nylander’s arrival (recall that quality of competition only tends to be meaningful on the very extremes). To me, it’s clear that Nylander has a positive impact on possession, one which exceeds what Marner has shown thus far.
You’ve read enough. They both kick ass on special teams, and I don’t need to spend 500 words convincing you of that fact.
One thing I want to be very careful about in this article is that it is not about taking down Mitch Marner. He is PHENOMENAL, and deserves all of the buzz and excitement around him that he gets. Everything about him screams future franchise player. But when you dig past the superficial counting stats, you begin to see how Nylander has performed similarly or better, in just about every facet of the game.
In a way, Nylander has been forgotten because of the younger, sexier prospects coming up behind him (speaking only in a hockey context here). However, his play has been nothing short of top-class, and he should be recognized as the Leafs’ second best rookie, and arguably their second best forward too.