In the past, I’ve had “hot takes”. Well, this is what I’m going to call a “stupid hot take”, in that it’s only a hot take if you’re stupid. Now, I don’t mean that as a “if you disagree with me, you’re stupid” kind of stupid. What I mean is “if you miss what I’m arguing here, you’ll think it’s a hot take, and that is why you’re stupid” kind of stupid.
So, just to clarify with the headline, I’m not saying that William Nylander is better than Auston Matthews, John Tavares, or Mitch Marner. In fact, I’ll get this out of the way right now: I think he’s the fourth best player of this group.
What I do think is that he should always be looked at as a part of that group, as opposed to the next best forward after the big three. Too often, I hear the conversation as:
When it should probably be:
So, let’s take a look at a few aspects of William Nylander’s game to figure out why he holds his own in our elite core of forwards.
5v5 point production
Just to get this out of the way, for the purpose of a somewhat accurate comparison, I’m excluding the first 19 games of his 2018-19 season. What we saw in those 19 games was a fatigued Nylander who was still in training camp form while the rest of the league was in mid-season form. It was completely through his own fault, and I’m not excusing what was an extremely poor campaign for Nylander, but it’s also been over-exaggerated by his naysayers to the point that they look at it as the norm and not a very obvious outlier. I’m looking at what Nylander is like when in NHL form, so I’m only including the data where he is. Call it fudging the numbers, but this is 19 games of poor play compared to 266 games of normal play.
A huge reason why Nylander’s point production hasn’t looked at the same level as Matthews, Tavares, and Marner is because of how he always seems to get the short end of the stick when it comes to the power play (which I’ll get into more detail in the next section). If you look at his production at even strength as compared to everyone else, it is significantly closer.
Since 2016-17, Nylander has had a 0.55 points per game at even strength, compared to Matthews’ 0.73, Marner’s 0.65, and Tavares’ 0.74 (Tavares numbers are just as a Leaf). That still seems like a gap, but it’s important to realize that he also has plays less than the other three.
If you look at 5v5 points per 60, it’s closer. Since 2016-17, Nylander’s 2.18 5v5 points per 60 is fourth on the team, and is much closer to Matthews (2.52), Tavares (2.4), and Marner (2.34). Still not super close, but once you’re at this point of scoring rates, it’s all high level production.
Heck, if you just look at the Leafs 5v5 points per 60 since Jan. 20th, 2019 (that’s the first game after Nylander’s 19 game cutoff), Nylander leads all Leafs with at least 50 games player with a 2.31 points per 60, just ahead of Matthews’ 2.30, Marner’s 2.27, and Tavares’ 2.03.
Considering that he’s the only player that seems to get benched/demoted to the bottom six (and don’t tell me Marner was once on the fourth line, that was for like five games), it takes a bit of a hit to his boxcar stats, but if you dive a bit deeper, his production is at a similar level.
Power play point production
Nylander has had an interesting relationship with the powerplay in his career so far. In his 2015-16 stint, he had a decent amount of power play time, mostly due to the lack of options on the team. In 2016-17 and 2017-18, it was a different story. His line with Matthews and Hyman were pretty good at drawing penalties, which usually meant they were not on the ice to start the power play, and because the Leafs power play was really good those years, they wouldn’t even hit the ice because the unit of Marner-Kadri-van Riemsdyk-Bozak would already score, especially in the 2017-18 season. And then in 2018-19 and the early 2019-20 season, Nylander found himself on the outside looking in on the loaded first unit of Matthews-Marner-Tavares-Kadri. You can say that was because he held out to start 2018-19, but Babcock had already mentioned that was his plan during the summer, and he even had Johnsson on that top unit to start the 2019-20 season. Babcock just didn’t want Nylander on that top unit.
It wasn’t until Keefe took over that Nylander actually got a good opportunity on the power play. Sure, he had been on that top unit for a bit, but that was mostly due to injuries to Tavares and Marner. Keefe actually wanted him on that unit, and even saw a spot for him in front of the net, resulting in a significant change to the power play’s success.
Under Babcock, that loaded Leafs power play that he put together at the beginning of 2018-19 had been operating at only 20.7%, good for 11th in the league. Fine, but not great considering the talent on there. Since Keefe took over (and Nylander joined the unit), that unit has been second in the league at 26.5%.
As far as individual success goes since Keefe took over, Matthews has 18 power play points, Marner has 17, Tavares has 16, and Nylander has 14. Nylander has been a huge help for actually putting the puck in the net though, as his 8 power play goals since Keefe took over is tied for first with Matthews.
A huge difference between Nylander’s production and the rest of the big four has been the fact that he hasn’t had an opportunity on that top unit, so his recent promotion to the top unit has allowed him to actually see similar production to the other members of the big four. Since Keefe took over, Nylander is still fourth with 42 points, but is much closer to Matthews (53), Marner (49), and Tavares (46).
His isolated impact
So, for this next bit, I’m going to be using Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) stats. I’m not going to go too into detail about it, but what it essential does is isolate a player’s impact by getting rid of factors that are out of the player’s control (such as their strength of competition and strength of teammates) in order to truly evaluate a player’s on-ice impact. Don’t ask me how, I’m not that smart, just Google it.
But, this should give us a better idea of what kind of impact Nylander has because he’s constantly been put in tougher positions to succeed than the rest of the big four, whether it’s the here-and-there benchings, or spending half of 2016-17 and most of 2018-19 away from Matthews and on the shutdown line with Kadri.
A quick look at the Big Four’s goal, expected goal, and corsi RAPMs and a few things are clear:
- Holy crap, Tavares is pretty good at driving play (which happens when you drive play well while either playing with bad linemates in New York and against top competition consistently).
- If it wasn’t already, it’s very clear who was driving that Marner-Tavares duo.
- Nylander is significantly better than Marner at driving play when you factor in linemates and competition.
While still not at the same level as Tavares and Matthews, he’s probably closer to them at driving play than he is Marner. The only stat where Marner is even close to Nylander here is just straight goal differential, which doesn’t factor in shooting and goalie luck (something Marner has benefited from slightly more). Otherwise, Marner isn’t even close to Nylander when it comes to actually driving play.
So, you should have two takeaways from this:
- Nylander is definitely at the same level of skill as the other big three, particularly Marner.
- Nylander was consistently shafted by Babcock in factors controlled by coaching (ie. time on ice, linemates, competition), and has only looked better under Keefe because he’s actually being put in a similar position to succeed as Matthews, Nylander, and Marner.
It’s unfortunate that this has happened to him in the early part of his career, but thankfully Keefe is the coach as he enters his prime, so we should see a much higher level from Nylander, and see it on a more consistent basis.