Preseason Player Previews: William Nylander

Why not start the preseason preview series off with a bang and go with the one Leaf who has tentative in his outlook calendar for all of the training camp dates. That’s right folks (folk’s) it’s Big Willy time, and we’re going to skip right past that whole contract thing for now, and reflect on what an amazing young player Nylander is and how #blessed we are to have him in our lives.

Last season William Nylander was once again for 61 points while playing on Auston Matthews wing. I’m told that 61 points by a 21 year old is very good, and that if he does this again at 22 we should be equally happy. Nylander has established himself as Auston Matthews’ playmaker, and/or guy who occasionally spots Zach Hyman sitting on top of a goaltender.

Nylander With TOI With TOI Away CF% With CF% w/o Teammate CF% w/o Nylander
Zach Hyman 836:39:00 298:16:00 51.36 46.77 45.39
Auston Matthews 718:13:00 134:49:00 50.87 46.03 47.12
via naturalstattrick.com

The biggest obstacle for Nylander last season was the 20 game absence of Matthews. It’s not that Nylander suddenly became bad. It’s just there seemed to be a lot of confusion on where he would fit in. The bulk of that time saw Nylander join Kadri’s line, but that didn’t go over so well with Nylander putting up a 46.5% Corsi For %.

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Nylander With TOI With TOI Away CF% With CF% w/o Teammate CF% w/o Nylander
Nazem Kadri 135:52:00 969:01:00 46.5 50.78 48.7
Andreas Borgman 127:31:00 526:06:00 45.49 51.43 51.46
Leo Komarov 115:12:00 911:18:00 38.81 50.99 46.06
Patrick Marleau 106:18:00 1028:37:00 57.6 49.41 48.18
Mitchell Marner 64:10:00 1070:46:00 56.52 49.84 51.53
Tyler Bozak 53:43:00 1065:18:00 37.84 50.76 53.04
James van Riemsdyk 52:45:00 1068:10:00 44.34 50.27 54.86
Connor Brown 38:43:00 1096:12:00 50 50.18 49.42
Matt Martin 38:16:00 647:04:00 45.35 51.41 49.45
Dominic Moore 38:07:00 651:15:00 51.32 51.02 49.11
via naturalstattrick.com

In fact, away from Matthews and Hyman, Nylander only had favourable Corsi numbers with Marleau and Marner if you look at players he played over 30 minutes with and aren’t Dominic Moore sheltered minutes.

The time away from Matthews did allow the Leafs to explore Nylander as a future center option, which might seem unnecessary after the arrival of Tavares, but still remains a door that shouldn’t fully be closed. Nylander took the 4th most faceoffs for the Leafs last season, and for whatever that’s worth, I think it will set him up as the candidate to move to the middle of the ice if Tavares, Matthews, or Kadri are hurt in the upcoming year.

Moving beyond his annual 61 points, and faceoffs, we can see that Nylander is firmly established as a player putting up first line results…

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His goal scoring clearly suffers from having an elite option to pass to (‘sup Zach Hyman) and that primary assist rate puts him the top 2% of setup guys in the league. Probably not something we want to highlight too much while still waiting for Willie to come in on a reasonable long term contact.

What we’re seeing in abundance from Nylander is consistency. His first two full seasons have demonstrated that he is a solid setup man, and can be counted on to carry the puck into the offensive zone. We’re also seeing the influence that Matthews has on his game, as the 2016-17 with a healthy Matthews produced even more impressive results that was seen in the past year.

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It’s also worth celebrating that Nylander’s exit results have significantly improved, a possible sign that his development towards a center role is going well, even if it seems somewhat unnecessary.

When it comes to how Nylander has distributed the puck, you get a real feel for his favourite spots on the ice. Nylander is creature of the half boards, and likes having the room to make his plays. Nylander certainly tends to lean towards safe or high risk/ high reward plays, and I’m not sure whether that’s his natural inclination or a product of Babcock coaching, but the results are there with his primary linemates, and it will be interesting to see what happens as his experience, time in the league, and trust all increase.

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If we’re talking about areas of possible improvement for Nylander, it’s probably going to be addressing the power play. Potentially the Leafs will be trotting out 1A/1B units that will be very similar in how they can completely decimate the opposition, but considering that Nylander primarily played with Marleau, Matthews, Gardiner, and Brown he was already part of a pretty loaded unit (and Brown.)

Somehow Nylander’s power play point totals dropped from 26 to 12, with the biggest change being replacing Leo Komarov with Patrick Marleau on the unit. Perhaps teams knew what to expect of the Nylander/Matthews unit, and there’s a need to freshen things up, but I’m willing to bet that Matthews and Gardiner will still be on the ice with Nylander, even if the other personnel get swapped out.

Another challenge for Nylander will be getting icetime, and you’d think with the departure of James van Riemsdyk that Mike Babcock might try to find a way to shuffle some extra playing time over to Nylander and Marner (SPOILER: Marleau now plays 30 minutes a night). Nylander has seen his defensive game improve, largely through his linemates, but improved nevertheless. It also seems, and this is just wishful thinking on my part, that Nylander could see the odd double shift as the center of the fourth line in sheltered situations to continue to grow that skill set when the opportunity for it rises.

So what can we reasonably expect from Nylander this season? Well…I think it’s safe to say we can expect a lot, especially after we thrust insane expectations on him from a shiny new contract. Is it weird to say that 61 points isn’t going to cut it this year? Yes it is. I think I could still be very happy if Nylander puts up 61 puts, but I honestly believe he could get more, and I’m going to set the bar at 70.

With some pressure being alleviated from the Matthews line by the Tavares, it’s entirely possible that Matthews and Nylander could be lining up 2nd defensive pairings a lot more often, a luxury not afforded them much last season, and something that was completely absent in the playoffs last year. Nylander may still have to go up against Chara in the playoffs next year, but only half the time. Marner is going to be seeing some of that too, and that means more time against John Moore for Willie.

That will have to be the biggest difference for a lot of the Leafs we discuss in this preview series is how do things change for the playoffs. Nylander has the potential to allow the Leafs to roll four lines, in needed in the playoffs, or simply allow the Leafs to overload three of them. While he’s never going to be the physical force people demand, especially in a grudge match series against Boston, you can see the progress he’s made in bulking up every season, and his speed and smarts will always be his biggest asset (aside from the opposition getting lost in his eyes.)

Finally, we probably need to address the elephant in the room that is William Nylander’s contract. Leafs Insider John Tavares weighed in on that today…

So there’s that. Whether that means he plans on reporting without a contract or something is imminently close to being done, we’ll have to wait and see. The Leafs seem fond of Lamoriello’s “silence is golden” approach over Burke’s “the team is a reality show” style and we’ll probably learn about the deal after the ink is dry.

Since speculation is a big part of what we do here, I’m going to guess we’re looking at something in the $6.5M-$7.5M per season range, and the Leafs will probably be fighting for either an eight year deal, or one that expires while Nylander is restricted free agent, so if it’s a 4, 7, or 8 year deal the Leafs got what they wanted. If it’s a 5 or 6 year deal, Nylander won that battle.

Assuming that Tavares has been intel than me, and Nylander will be there for the full camp, and we’re about to embark on a glorious era of enjoy Willie play without having to hear about his contract. Like I’ve been saying. He’s very good.

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