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Photo Credit: Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports

Nylander’s lack of 5v5 scoring touch may not just be luck

Before William Nylander caught fire in the second half of the 2016/17 season, I wrote this short piece basically saying that the process was there and the results were bound to come. It would be easy to say “I told you so,” but there are some things I glossed over at the time which I’d like to dig into now.

When you first start digging into Nylander’s 5v5 shot rates, you’ll notice that he had the second-worst shooting percentage of the Leafs’ forward group, converting at a rate less efficient than all but his stone hands linemate Zach Hyman. My first inkling was to assume that Nylander was just unlucky this year and we should expect him to score a few more goals at even strength next season, assuming his shooting percentage regresses closer to average or slightly above average. Nylander is a very skilled player with a great shot, so it seems like the obvious signs are pointing to his conversion rate being likely to increase next season since he also produces shots at a decent rate. I mean, Matt Martin had a higher 5v5 conversion rate than Nylander this year.

Nylander ended the season with 11 even-strength goals, tied with Tyler Bozak for sixth on the team. The difference between the two, though, was that Bozak converted on 11.22% of his shots while Nylander only converted on 7.91% of his. Bozak has always been an efficient shooter, but Nylander seems to have a much higher skill-set so, again, I was still inclined to think “bad luck.”

Then I looked at DTMAboutHeart’s expected goals data and was surprised to see that the model didn’t really believe Nylander was unlucky at all. His 11 goals were virtually dead on with his 11.2 ixG, while Bozak’s numbers were very similar (11 goals vs 10.83 expected goals) despite Nylander shooting much more frequently. It’s important to note that the model takes career shooting efficiency into account, so Bozak’s high career shot conversion rate is accounted for here, while Nylander doesn’t have much of a sample size to account for yet. Nonetheless, this caught my attention and got me curious about the classic “shot quality” debate.

First I looked at individual scoring chances per hour and found that Nylander didn’t rack up scoring chances for himself at a particularly high rate. In fact, the only Leaf forwards who had less individual scoring chances per hour on the ice were Frederik Gauthier, Leo Komarov, Brian Boyle, Matt Martin and Nikita Soshnikov. Not exactly offensive stalwarts. This is likely a result of Nylander taking shots from an average distance of more than 28 feet, closer than only Martin, Boyle and Soshnikov. Here is a good visual comparison of Nylander’s shot locations versus his most frequent linemates, Zach Hyman and Auston Matthews via hockeyviz.com by Micah Blake McCurdy, which I recently subscribed to and I highly recommend you do the same.

     

Hyman had the closest average shot distance on the team at 20.77 feet, which makes it even more impressive that he only converted on 4.48% of his shots, while Matthews was fourth on the team at 22.77 feet. One thing Nylander could do to help improve his shot distance and therefore the likelihood of converting on more shots is switching to left wing, or at least spending more time on the left side in the offensive zone. It’s clear that he’s more comfortable on the right side by the way he stays there even on the power play, but I think it would be very beneficial for him and the team to flip him to the left side. A right-handed shooter taking all of his shots from the right side greatly diminishes the danger of said shots. His stick is on the board side of the ice, forcing him to shoot across his body, making the angle much more difficult and also creating more distance between the puck and the net. If he’s on the left side, his stick is closer to the middle of the ice which opens up a lot better shooting angles and more potential targets. Below is a visual from this piece by Matt Cane a few years ago on this very subject. The data is from 2010 through 2014.

Notice that forwards convert on a significantly higher percentage of their shots from the middle while on their off-hand. In total, players shooting from their off-hand converted on 9.9% of their shots while players on their on-hand converted on 8.6%. Of course, being such a perfect creature, Nylander can still make it look easy sometimes.

So, since Hyman only shoots from the top of the crease anyway, flip those two wingers if you still want that line in tact. I’d rather put, say, Kasperi Kapanen with them, but just for the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume that line is staying intact. This is also assuming that Babcock meant it when he recently said Nylander will not be moving to centre next season. I’d also like to see Nylander get more shots from in tight, but Matthews and Hyman both frequent that area and Nylander is really good at facilitating from the perimeter. In fact, Ryan Stimson’s passing data had Nylander leading the Leafs in expected primary assists and points per hour during the sample size tracked this year, which was around 1/8th of the Leafs’ 5v5 time.

*Both visuals by Sean Tierney.

I think this is why Matthews and Nylander’s games compliment each other so well. Nylander is the facilitator, he’s the guy with the controlled entries and flawless open ice skills to go along with the great vision to create something out of nothing from the perimeter in the offensive zone. Matthews is the shooter with the quick release and the good hands in tight who knows how to make himself available to go along with the ability to take pucks from the opposition like it’s nothing.

Ultimately, I think the only thing I would change in Nylander’s game by next season is convincing him to play on the left side of the ice. It’s obviously something he himself needs to get comfortable with, but it would make a significant difference in his shot quality and most likely add a couple of goals to his totals.

Who knows, the added threat might even make his linemates that much more dangerous.

  • lukewarmwater

    Something just tells me that Nylander will likely improve in the gazillion statistics you listed there. I remember when Hab fans were ready to give up on some guy in his third year who only had 23 goals. Some wanted to trade the guy as they thought he was a bum. Probably had similar weaknesses in the stats as our author so laboriously listed here. Yeah that Lafleur guy might have been on the trade block. But unfortunately Hab management didn’t have all these wonderful stats to analyse, digest, spew out and try to comprehend.

    • dylan fremlin

      Where do you see me implying the Leafs should trade Nylander? He had 22 goals and 61 points as a 20 year old rookie, I’m just arguing he could have scored a couple more goals or so had he played on his off-wing.

      • lukewarmwater

        Maybe he would have a couple more goals if Babs didn’t put him on the fourth line to make him a more complete player. Of course the leafs are not going to trade him. It was his rookie season for heaven’s sake, he similar to other leaf rookies is learning the N.H.L. game. I’m sure he will study and study your comprehensive research to get those couple extra goals. My point is that it took Guy Lafleur until his fourth season to blossom into the super star he is. I’m sure similar stat after stat after stat would have shown the flaws in his game in the first three years. Heh I get that like a lot of other people like you love the stats aspect, me I just simply relax and enjoy a beautiful pass, a beautiful goal , a beautiful save. Different strokes for different folks makes the world go around. All season in this site we read and read all the weaknesses of Polak, Hunwick and others as well they didn’t quite measure up to the all mighty stats. I just enjoyed their solid play in the past season.

        • Gary Empey

          When using stats to evaluate players game, there is a fine line that often gets crossed, making the article sound like one very critical of particular players. I don’t believe Dylan truly meant to say Nylander was under-performing in his rookie year. Unfortunately these stat based articles often come across that way. For die-hard Leaf fans it is hard to ignore and sometimes irritating, what appears to be dissatisfaction of the writer in said players performance. Especially when the player featured has just been a big part of the successful turn-around of a team that has struggled for years.

          • lukewarmwater

            Brother as usual you have spoken the word as Stats seems to be the IN WORD today. Speaking of stats, I’m hoping and praying that the hockey God’s keep the stats low regarding to key injuries to our best players including the three young stars that saw only Marner miss a couple of weeks do to the mysterious upper body injury. One only has to look at the Jays starters who last year had the least missed games of any starting rotation. This year 60% of the rotation is out with two young studs, Stroman and Sanchez having injuries such as finger blisters, torn hand nail and a sore arm pit. I’m also a hoping that Andersen who played some magnificent hockey during the 60 minutes improves in two critical areas as he seemed to have a major psychological problem with o.t. although he did improve to 40% against the Capitals and specifically in shoot outs where some nights he had trouble stopping a beach ball. On the other hand the leafs didn’t score a lot of shoot out goals either. There was also some luck in that Tampa exploded with injuries and turmoil. I think this young talented squad with an outstanding management team could possibly slip a bit next season with other teams improving and clubs not using their back up goalies. We must have a solid back up all season as we are guaranteed that M.L.S.E. will have close to half our games back to back in the regular season. So a slight possible slippage doesn’t bother me in the least as this is truly a club heading in the right direction to be a true Stanley Cup contender. Patience truly is a virtue.

          • lukewarmwater

            Bro I think you summed up the generational gap in that a significant number of old timers naturally accept old school thoughts. Hell if I was young I would likely be eating the new stats for breakfast lunch and dinner. I tend to agree that teams will continue to blend a combination of new ideas, theories with the traditional way of operating a successful hockey club. I got to respect some one who puts that much time in theorising the production of a player. It definitely appears that our current management that ranges from the almost 75 year old leaping Lou to our young assistant G.M. is indeed mixing the variety of components of producing a successful hockey club.

          • Gary Empey

            I also understand there is a lot of hard work and time that goes into analyzing statistics. But when your conclusions do not reflect the facts then one has to use their intelligence to see what is wrong with the data you used. Instead we get stuff like Nylander is playing the wrong wing. Zaitsev is our 7th or 8th best defenceman. The list goes on all year long.

      • BarelyComments

        It’s true if you put him on his off wing you might get a couple more goals. However, you also make a much less effective passing option to and from Matthews off of the rush. I’d rather have Nylander on the end of Matthews pass after his entry and while he drives the net rather then Hyman.