Photo Credit: Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com
Don’t say that we didn’t warn you. Earlier in the season, we hypothesized on this site that William Nylander could, in theory, score 100 points in the AHL this season. The post was heavily criticized as insane and highly biased. It’s now Christmas Day and despite a “slump” of “just” five points in as many games before heading to Helsinki for the World Juniors, he’s still on pace for 95 over 76 games.
Rather than stick to the “we told you so”, this post aims to double down. At this point in time, William Nylander is the best player in the AHL, and arguably the best player to ever play at this level in his age range.
Crushing The Present
The easy way to go about telling you that Wiliam Nylander is the best player in the AHL would be to point to the “Top Scorers” page and point out that he’s six points ahead of second place. But that would be doing a disservice to describing how fantastic he’s been.
Presently, Nylander is a goal behind Davin Shore (Texas) and Scott Wilson (Wilkes-Barre), despite the two being 2 and 4 years older respectively. Both have higher shooting percentages (Shore’s is an absurd 27.8%) and have more powerplay goals. Even Strength is where Nylander really shines as far as putting the puck in the net; he leads the league in even strength goals, and of all players in the top-20 in points, has the seventh best ratio of Even Strength & Shorthanded Goals to Powerplay Goals, scoring 78.57% of his tallies without a man advantage.
Beyond that, Nylander is tied with 21-year-old Brandon Montour of San Diego for the league lead in assists. Like the previous situation, Nylander is more effective at even strength, getting ten of his helpers at 5-on-5 while Montour, who has been touted as a powerplay quarterback, has picked up all but six of his on the powerplay.
Nylander’s shooting percentage is 16.28%; a fair bit above the league average of approximately 9.6%, but not significantly above the average player in the top 20 in scoring. You know what they say; you have to be good to be lucky, and lucky to be good. His numbers aren’t totally shocking, though; he slots himself in high percentage areas, often dishes to his teammates, and well, is able to do this on a frequent basis:
Here’s Nylander’s first goal from tonight. His wrist shot is absurd. pic.twitter.com/cqU0esvBD1
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) December 5, 2015
Overall, it’s safe to say that Nylander is crushing the league. Over the course of a 76 game season, he’d be paced out to 39 goals, 56 assists, and 95 points. That’s not quite 100 (though that can be reversed by a good game once he returns), but it’s the best pace in the league. In fact, it’s likely that he’ll still be atop the league after the World Juniors, despite being thousands of kilometres away for two weeks. The Marlies are fortunate enough to have a stacked roster without him; TJ Brennan, Josh Leivo, and Mark Arcobello are all in the top 20 as well, but it’ts pretty safe to count Nylander as the best player in the AHL this year. For a 19-year-old, that’s pretty good.
Shattering The Past
Not only is Nylander outproducing all of his peers in the present, he’s also one of the best in his age range historically.
We had this discussion last year as well. Nylander started the season on MoDo of the Swedish Hockey League, in order to make him more familiar with playing in a men’s league without adding culture shock to the mix. As it turns out, he quickly became one of the best players in the league despite playing on a terrible team and out-produced some very elite company along the way. not included on in the above top five are the likes of Peter Forsberg, Henrik Sedin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mats Sundin, who produced lower per-game numbers at the same age (though Forsberg was more productive than Nylander at 17).
After a stellar (and local) showing at the World Juniors, Nylander packed his bags for Toronto and joined the Marlies. His first few games were slow, but he finished the season with 32 points in 37 games; second best for any 18-year-old who has played 30 or more games in an AHL season (David Pastrnak, admittedly, was likely to be higher if he played 30; but even still, that’s still 3rd ever).
This year, it’s been more of the same. Nylander is ahead of every 19-year-old in AHL history as far as points-per-game goes, edging out three very big names and Roman Voloshenko. If he can maintain this rate for three more games (so, four more points), he’ll be fourth all-time amongst 20-year-olds with 30 games played, despite being a year younger.
I used the same concepts that I used with the current players to see where Nylander stacks up against the historically most efficient players for their age in AHL history, and once again, this year ranks very favourably. He’s taking more shots per game than any of the 18 or 19-year-olds, but still has a better rate of assists than anybody other than Spezza (by a sliver).
Spezza’s inclusion in this, by the way, is a fun story. CHL-developed players usually don’t get to play in the AHL until they’re 20; unless you play four full seasons of junior first. When Spezza was 15, he took advantage of a now-extinct OHL rule that allowed for players of his age to play a year for their hometown team before entering the draft. Because of this, he started his junior career a year early with Brampton, was drafted by Mississauga, played three more years, and went into the AHL at 19. Back to Nylander, though.
Once again, Nylander excels when it comes to even strength goals per game, outscoring everybody else in this regard with 0.41 per game. Now, even more, curious, I looked up the best goal scorers a few years further ahead, and even then, he still stacks up well. Most of the top goal scorers at the ages of 20, 21, and 22 get those goals less frequently at even strength (especially Thomas Vanek, who scored 25 of his 42 goals at the age of 20 on the powerplay), and those who do have universally higher shooting percentages (about 4% higher, on average). He’s not the absolute best prospect-aged goal-scorer, but he’s certainly up there. That 78.57% ES to Powerplay ratio is, once again, better than anybody at his own age as well, with only Ryan Strome coming ahead of him as far as high-production twenty-year-olds.
What’s Helped Him
Comparing Nylander to himself in just about every way possible as a 19-year-old. He scores more frequently, sets up more goals, takes more shots, has a more sustainable shooting percentage, and scores more of his goals at even strength. It’s a perfect storm, but what’s helped him get here?
The easiest place to point would be natural age progression, and that’s totally valid direction to go. As referenced in the 100 Points article, players who hit that mark in the AHL usually take leaps, and in the case of the younger ones who do it, those leaps are significant. 21-year-olds, for example, improve in production by 59%, and those who hit the mark at 24 or younger improve by about 40-45%. Nylander’s leap is in perfectly in line with all of this; his points per game has seen a 46% increase this year.
It’s more than just that, though. Some will point to the point to the emphasis he put on bulking up in 2015; fears that he would be roughed up by his opponents faded quickly as he put on nearly 25 pounds of muscle in the span of a few months. Others will point to his commitment on the ice; the youngster has been constantly praised for his willingness to follow Sheldon Keefe’s plans for him, be it during practice or in games. Some will even point to his linemates, with both Josh Leivo and Richard Panik both looking to be NHL quality themselves; the latter being most obvious. Particularly when you’re looking to set people up, you need finishers who can get the job done, and he’s surrounded by them on the best team in the league.
What I’ve noticed, personally, is that the shift to centre has made a huge difference. Many had Nylander pegged as a long-term winger when he was drafted by the team, due to his reputation for having world-class talent, but most that talent relying on offensive instinct.
Not every centre has to be a shutdown wizard, though. In fact, if you’re spending most of your time controlling the offensive zone and racking up goals, that’s more effective than any attempt at shot suppression could ever be. Nylander follows his assignments, is good at tracking his man in the defensive zone, but most importantly, is able to get the puck back and restart the play faster than most. He’s capable of carrying the puck from end-to-end if need be, or he’s able to send it off to a winger while he gets ready to crash to the front of the net.
In a sense, his involvement in Toronto’s offence is now active instead of passive. Rather than being given the puck once the play is partially created and told to do something with it, he’s involved early, he’s involved often, and he’s the one who uses his chess pieces in order to prepare for his strongest move. More of his points are coming from rush goals than ever before, and he’s taking nearly an additional shot and a half per game as a result of having so many opportunities.
There are a lot of questions surrounding how the rest of William Nylander’s season will go. After all, we’re a little more than three weeks away from the Leafs being able to call him up without burning a UFA year, and his elite production thus far implies that he could be a second-line centre in the NHL right now. Reasonably, one could expect him to remain the hottest scorer in the AHL as long as he stays down with the team, but what happens when the Leafs start shedding some assets?
Kyle Dubas talked about keeping prospects down with the Marlies until they were ready to take on a significant NHL role. William Nylander appears to be ready, so once there’s room for him, you have to imagine the team will consider bringing him up full-time. From there, it’s possible that he comes back for the Calder Cup Playoffs to get some additional games in, so long as the Leafs don’t make an out of the blue run of their own (unlikely) or Team Sweden comes knocking again to use him for the World Championships in Moscow.
But alas, there’s a time for that speculation, and now isn’t it. In the moment, I suggest you take advantage of every opportunity you can to watch Nylander beat up on weaker competition; whether it’s in these World Juniors (games against Canada notwithstanding), or at Ricoh Coliseum with the Marlies. If Nylander doesn’t get called up to the Leafs as soon his magic number game passes, your next opportunity to see him in Toronto will be on January 20th, against Syracuse.