You may have heard that William Nylander has been in a slump since he returned to the Leafs just less than a month ago. In that time he hasn’t found the back of the net once, and has just two assists through 11 games played. Because of that, people are freaking out, going as far as saying he should have been traded instead of signed, all that kind of stuff.
Toronto fans going insane? Nah, couldn’t be.
Anyway, while Nylander’s offensive struggles have started to make headlines, going as far as teammates having to declare they’ll do anything to help him find twine, it’s worth looking at how the Leafs have done as a team since he’s come back into the fold. There’s a spoiler here: They’re good.
We could go as far as saying Nylander re-entering the lineup has made this team substantially better, especially in the run of play at even-strength, something they desperately needed to improve on. This despite the fact the Leafs have been missing one of their stronger defensive players in Zach Hyman to injury over the last little while.
Put simply, Nylander is fine and, unsurprisingly, the team improves with him in there. He just can’t buy one right now. It happens. But he has been solid contributor to Toronto’s possession game since coming back. He’s spent most of his time flanking Nazem Kadri (with either Brown or Marleau on the other side), and the combination of Kadri/Nylander has controlled exactly 60% (okay, 59.6%) of the shot attempt share at even strength. That’s, like, really good.
It’s probably no coincidence that the team has taken a nice step forward overall in this regard as well over the last month. While the accumulation of points in the standings is great, I think most people who follow the team closely wanted to see them push teams on their heels a little more at 5v5 and not have to rely too heavily on goaltending and special teams lest they go cold. They have. In the time since he’s come back, Toronto has gained a full percentage point and jumped from 14th to 10th overall in score-adjusted Corsi at the team level.
It’s a slim time period, but it’s hard to look at these kinds of things and argue the Leafs have been markedly better establishing their presence at even strength in the last month. No doubt there could be a number of factors, including a team with some new faces simply finding their stride a couple months into the season, but the bottom line is that with Nylander in the lineup this season, Toronto has been a much stronger club. Their ability to limit shots against has been significant as well, which bodes well considering the workload and injury to Andersen, and the questions around their backup situation.
In the simplest terms, the Leafs have put themselves in a better position to win games over the last little while, and the points have come along with it to the tune of their 2nd overall place in the standings.
To borrow a very common Babcock phrase, if you do things right on both sides of the puck, good things will happen. It’s that “taking care of the puck” idea, which Nylander is one of the best at. Maybe it hasn’t translated to much personal success in terms of boxcar stats quite yet, but it’s easy to see those things are happening for the team as a whole. It’s tough to complain about that, though I’m sure people will continue to find a way.
As for when he’ll finally get through this slump, it looks as though Nylander will take his rightful spot alongside Auston Matthews when the Wild come to town tonight. While his ability to push the play with Kadri has been key in the team tilting the ice the right way to this point, we’ve seen the former pair do a lot of incredible things in the past. It probably won’t be long before 34 and 29 get back to their old ways.