If I had a nickel for every time William Nylander’s name was thrown around in trade rumours for something the other core players would just get a stern finger wagging for, I’d probably be the richest man in the world.
Look, Nylander isn’t a perfect player. His defense can be a bit lacking, he’s prone to make those big mistakes that scream bad to the eye test, and he can look like he isn’t always putting in 100% effort, sometimes because he isn’t, and sometimes because his skill and skating are well above most of his competition that he just doesn’t look like he’s working as hard as Grinder McGritface on the fourth line.
But, trading Nylander would be a mistake. A big one. The kind of mistake that you think looks great now, but in two or three years, he’s torching the Leafs in a playoff series on route to a Stanley Cup, while all those “valuable” depth pieces we got for him turned out to be just that: depth pieces that could never replace the value that Nylander brought.
Look, I get it. You’re still not over the fact that he “held out” (aka Kyle Dubas didn’t give him a fair value offer until hours before the deadline to get the contract done) for the first two months of the season with an “ugly” contract negotiations (that was actually very quiet and nowhere near the publicity stunt that was Darren Ferris and Paul Marner negotiating Mitch Marner’s contract), and followed it up with a disappointing season (one half due to getting adjusted to an in-progress league, the other half due to terrible shooting luck).
Let’s just ignore the fact that he scored 31 goals last season, and was on pace for 37 had the pandemic not happened, or that he’s emerged as a dominant net front presence despite his “soft” reputation. Or that he’s on pace for another 31 goal, 62 point season despite a “horrendous” and “disappointing” start to the season. It’d be too easy to just give him credit when we can just keep blindly hating him for absolutely no reason, and demand he be traded this instant.
Before we even talk about how underwhelming of a return we would get for Nylander, let’s talk about how good Nylander really has been.
As I mentioned before, Nylander is currently on pace for a 31 goal, 62 point season, which would tie his career high for goals, and be a career high in points. One concern early on scoring rise is his even strength scoring rates, as his 1.59 5v5 points per 60 minutes is the worst of his career up to this point. But, one of the biggest reasons for that is that he doesn’t have a single secondary assist this season, which has historically proven to be more luck based than skill based. If you only look at his primary points, it’s his third best scoring rate of his career, and the secondary assists should be something that regresses either later this season, or next season.
Nylander’s biggest improvement has been his possession numbers this season. Despite a rotating cast of depth players on that third spot on his line with John Tavares, Nylander has put up his best 5v5 goal shares, third best shot shares, third best fenwick shares, third best shot attempt shares, and best expected goals shares. His 4.2 goals above replacement via Evolving Hockey sits at a solid 77th in the league, and third amongst Leafs forwards behind Matthews and Marner, with his GAR per 60 being the second best of his career. Perhaps most impressively though has been his Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus (which isolates his personal impact on the ice from other factors like teammates, competition, rink bias, etc.), which has shown a significant improvement in his defensive play, and actually shows that he’s been the one driving his line this season, not Tavares.
That can also be shown by their WOWYs, as the duo has a 54.13% 5v5 CF% and a 57.9% 5v5 xGF%, but Tavares has just a 43.37% CF% and 46.94% xGF% away from Nylander, while Nylander has a 55.08% CF% and a 56.57% xGF% away from Tavares. It’s not just Tavares either, all those third players on that line have also seen a similar effect.
To add to this a bit further, I don't think most fans would consider Hyman "bottom 6", but he has bounced around the lineup a bit this season:
Hyman w/ 88 – 56% CF%
Hyman w/out 88 – 47% CF
The only real exception to this rule is Mikheyev.
— draglikepull (@draglikepull) March 7, 2021
So, at this point I shouldn’t need to convince you that he’s good, and if I do, there’s clearly no saving you. But, if you still want to trade Nylander, let me remind you of one big factor: odds are, he will be the best player dealt in that trade, and usually those trades don’t work out for the team trading him.
Just look at some of the past trades involving star wingers. When Taylor Hall went to the Coyotes, the Devils got the mandatory first, but the other prospects aren’t much to write home about. When the Penguins trades Phil Kessel, they only got Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre-Oliver Joseph. Mark Stone got the Senators Erik Brannstrom, but not even a first round pick, and Oscar Lindberg was the only other player going the other way. Oh, and for the people who want to trade Nylander for a top four defenseman still (which, I don’t know why when we already have five of them), let’s not forget the Hall for Larsson trade.
Star players rarely get the return you’re looking for, and the team trading them more often than not ends up being the losers in those deals. William Nylander brings a ton of value to the team that certainly won’t show in his market value, and his contract, despite popular belief, is one of the best “bang for your buck” values on the team, particularly with the big four forwards.
I’m not expecting this article to end the “trade Nylander” discussions, because they’re going to be as inevitable as the sun rising and setting every day, but it’s also important to note that at the very least, two other people share this value: Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas. Heck, it’s clear that Sheldon Keefe values him even if he benches him from time to time.
Whether you like it or not, Nylander ain’t going anywhere, so you might as well learn to enjoy what he brings to the team.