Analyzing what William Nylander brings to Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas joins Kyle Bukauskas to talk about the process of signing William Nylander.

In case you haven’t heard every sports reporter in Canada shouting it from the rooftops, that William Nylander guy and the Toronto Maple Leafs finally ended their contract stalemate and came to an agreement on a six-year deal that carries a cap hit of $6,962,366 until the end of the 2023-23 season, except for this year where the cap hit is $10,277,778.

Emily Sadler has all the details of the contract, but what I wanted to look at was what Nylander brings to the Maple Leafs, because after missing almost a third of the season, it sure seems like a lot of people have forgotten how good he is.

While the hockey world, especially in Toronto, is fawning over Mitch Marner’s phenomenal start to the season, it’s worthwhile to remember that Marner’s 130 points in his first two seasons are only eight more than what Nylander produced over the same time frame. Coincidentally, when I ranked the top right-wingers in the NHL, Marner ranked eighth and Nylander ranked ninth.

There is a perception that there is a wide gap between those two players, when in reality there isn’t much of one, if there is one at all. That isn’t a knock on Marner so much as it’s a reminder of dominant a player Nylander is. Despite how differently the two of them play the game, their overall impact is very similar.

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While Marner is a dangler who makes crazy passes that few others could make, and has become far more aggressive and responsible in the defensive zone over his last 60 games or so, Nylander is a transition beast who is one of the NHL’s best puck carriers, and an extremely underrated neutral zone defender who takes smart routes while defending to break up passes and steal pucks from opponents.

To put Nylander’s play into context, let’s compare him to some other current Maple Leafs from last season, since he hasn’t had the chance to play in 2018-19 yet.

Going through this cross-section of statistics, you can see that while Nylander is about the fourth-best offensive player on the Maple Leafs, he is absolutely their best transition player, especially at both blue lines. Nylander either carries the puck out or is the passing option on zone exits almost nine times per 20 minutes, which is just a monstrous amount, and he creates more controlled entries into the offensive zone than any other Leafs player.

Nylander is going to undoubtedly add more offensive punch to the Leafs’ already impressive group of forwards, his twin 61-point seasons, both with over 20 goals, should be an obvious indicator of that, but what he brings to the table more than anything is improving Toronto’s transition game.

The Leafs like to make long-bomb stretch passes, more than any other team, and they have consistently over the last few years boasted the lowest success rate in the league on those passes, but Nylander’s presence gives them another option while he’s on the ice, which should lead to more chances off the rush, more offensive zone time, and more goals for, with fewer against.

Defensive-zone coverage remains an issue with Nylander, which is probably why a lot of old-school types still don’t love him as a player. He has a tendency to wait for the play to come to him a little bit too often when he doesn’t have the puck, but when he does, his contributions to defence are immense simply by clearing the zone so effectively, and not just with little chips up the boards, but with plays that end up creating offence for his own team.

While Nylander hasn’t had glowing power-play results to date in his career, his scoring-chance numbers there have always been solid, so don’t be surprised if his presence ends up being a huge benefit to the second power-play unit as well, which combined with that incredible first unit, should make the Leafs’ already top-three power play even more terrifying for opponents to face.

When I looked at the top five even-strength teams to date so far this season, the Maple Leafs finished just outside the top group at sixth, and considering Nylander’s transition and offensive impact at 5-on-5, not to mention his impact on neutral-zone defence, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Leafs are in that top group by mid-season.

They are undoubtedly a contender.

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