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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

2016-17 Leafs Season in Review: William Nylander

Unlike the other two big rookies on the Leafs, fans already had an idea of what they were getting from William Nylander, as they got a taste of what he brought to the team in the 2015-16 season after the deadline, where he, and many other rookies, replaced the veterans that had been traded. He certainly impressed, with 13 points in 22 games, including six goals.

With an idea of the kind of player Willie was, he had relatively high expectations going into the season. He fulfilled them almost immediately, with 11 points in the first nine games of the season, and then took his game to a whole new level down the stretch, as he put up 14 points during a late-season 12 game point streak.

Despite getting traded by the media every day, Nylander managed to push those aside and show the world that he belongs in Toronto, capturing many fans hearts (including mine) in a way that compares to our old friend Philip Joseph Kessel Jr. Hopefully, Willie spends most of his career in Toronto, though.

Strengths

Where do I begin? First, let’s talk about his amazing playmaking skills. Nylander has vision and passing skills that give him a huge advantage over the competition. It doesn’t matter where the other player is, he can find a way to put it on his stick. It’s what makes him lethal on the power play, as he is able to set up just about anyone on the ice for a great scoring chance. There’s a reason why he was second in rookie assists (behind Mitch Marner) and tied for 35th overall (with Evgeni Malkin!), as he finished with 39 of them, 17 of them on the power play.

The other thing that makes him lethal on the power play is his shot. It makes life for the opponent extremely difficult knowing that he can make amazing passes, or pick a corner on a goalie just as easily. It doesn’t seem to matter about the angle, as long as there is an opening big enough to fit a puck. He finished the year with 22 goals, which was fourth among rookies, and tied for 70th overall.

Also, his hands. Oh god, his hands. Watch his highlights from the World Championships, and you will see what I mean. Whether it’s deking out a goalie in tight or using his skating to blow past opponents, he has the ability to make the other team look silly. His hands, shot, and passing skills are a rare, but dangerous trio that gives him a step above the competition. And this is just his first year!

Defensively, he appears to be off to a good start. He finished the season with a 52.4% 5v5 CF%, which was fourth on the team. Some of that is geared more towards his strong ability to generate offence (his 63.42 5v5 CF60 led the Leafs, and was 27th in the whole league), his shot suppression wasn’t too bad relative to the team, as his 57.66 5v5 CA60 was 10th on the team. All this while playing a decent chunk of the season on the Kadri-Komarov shutdown line.

Does he have any other strengths? Of course, just look at his beautiful face. He even cracked the first line on fellow LeafsNation writer Dylan Fremlin’s all-vanity team. It’s hard enough to play against him with his talent, never mind the fact that you’ll get distracted by his amazing looks.

Weaknesses

Of course, Willie isn’t perfect (yet). His aforementioned CA60 is a bit high to be considered amazingly good defensively, but considering his role on the shutdown line for a bit, as well as the fact that this is his first full season, it’s a bit understandable.

My other concern was his unimpressive outing at centre this season. While a really small sample size, especially considering he was on the fourth line, he didn’t perform very well at centre when Babcock put him there during Bozak’s injury. He seemed a bit out of place, which is surprising since he played centre in 2015-16. However, this is really nitpicking, since it was, again, a small sample size. But, it might be a concern, especially if there are still plans to put him at centre down the road.

Looking Ahead

It’s crazy to think about how amazing Nylander was this year, and then remember that this was his first full season in the NHL. While he has an extra year of development over Matthews and Marner, there were times where Nylander could dominate the game, especially down the stretch when the games mattered.

Going into next season, it wouldn’t surprise me if he takes another step forward offensively. Considering that he had the fourth-worst shooting percentage among forwards on the team, and the third lowest on-ice shooting percentage among all skaters, it wouldn’t shock me if Nylander had a “rebound year”, and shot at a better rate than last year.

If he really were to regress, this would mean that he probably is in the 70 point range next year, including possibly hitting 30 goals, but I feel like that’s a lot to expect from a player in his second year. I feel like he probably produces similarly to last year, while a lot more of his development comes from the defensive aspect of his game, to become that much better for the Leafs down the road.

  • Stan Smith

    You mentioned his playing centre last season. Most of the times I watched him with the Marlies he didn’t really play centre. He took draws, but then positioned himself like a winger in both the offensive and defensive zones. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, because it better utlilizes his break-out speed and his shot. My thinking is that is why Babcock wants him to remain a winger for now at least.

    • magesticRAGE

      I disagree. He would hover around the circles for pucks to be dug out, and would either pass to a winger or lead the rush up the middle. I mean, if the puck was along the boards close to his stick, he proceeded like a winger, like anyone would do. Even playing wing this past year, he often played like a winger. Nylander prefers to attack the zone up the middle, but if not, then dumps the puck in the corners.

      • Stan Smith

        Yes, but he positions as a winger. Usually the centre is the guy that goes after the puck in all 4 corners and behind both nets. In the defensive zone he positions as a RW along the half boards, or cheating towards the middle, and lets that winger battle for the puck down low. In the offensive zone he stays in the slot area, a la Kessel, and lets his wingers battle for the puck. Again, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It utilizes his skills better.

  • magesticRAGE

    I have been a big fan of Willie since he was drafted. His development curve is a steep one, continually on the uptick. Once he figures things out and get comfortable, his domination begins, similar to his performance down the stretch.
    I predict that he will be the teams best player next season (Matthews will be the most important), as he is already the most skilled.

    • magesticRAGE

      I think Willie could be a ppg player next season if his linemates can improve their finishing rates, cause a lot of his amazing passes were wasted in the first part of the year (Matthews *cough* Hyman *cough*).

      • Stan Smith

        I agree about Nylander, watching him throughout his career, it seems at each level, he starts slow, but learns, and once he gets comfortable, he is dominant.

        As for Hyman, he is better offensively than he showed. He scored 103 pts in 43 games in junior, and 54 pts in 37 games in University his last season. He didn’t play a full year in the AHL before joining the Leafs last year, and might have benefited from a full season or two there. He showed his offensive abilities in scoring 4 shorthanded goals, and setting a new rookie record for the Leafs. I think his 28 points is more of an anomally, and that he will be much better offensively this season. We will see.

  • lab16

    His back checking was, and still is, abysmal. He has lots of room to improve in all areas of the game without the puck. No one is expecting him to be Bob Gainey, but an effort when the Leafs don’t have the puck would be nice. This was his 3rd year on a pro team. Yes, the SHL is a pro league. Given, that he has lineage, he should have been well versed in all aspects of the game, before he even got here.
    His offense is fine and will improve each year, but there are two ends to the rink, and he will not become a center until he takes care of the back end. He can start by becoming proficient at the back check. Currently he is hurting the team in that regard.

    Waiting for the puck to come to you is not a good trait. I costs you games; overtime games; overtime playoff games!

    I would trade him straight up for Tkachuk with no hesitation.