William Nylander, Skilled But Polarizing

This is our fourth Toronto Maple Leafs’ player review. First, we wrote about Auston Matthews and what we believe makes him the best player in Maple Leafs’ franchise history. Second, we looked at why we believe that Mitch Marner is so underrated. Third, we looked at Michael Bunting and shared his good fortune, as well as the team’s, to find a place on the first line. Today, we’ll look at William Nylander.

As a reminder, if you missed the first three posts, we’re basing these reviews on the film study and note-taking of long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith. When he reviews each game after it’s played, he notes what each player does with the puck, without the puck, where they are, and what they’re doing while not directly involved in the play, etc. 

Maple Leafs’ Player Four: William Nylander

William Nylander is by far the most polarizing player on the Maple Leafs’ roster. He’s obviously an extremely gifted and talented player. However, his work ethic, and more precisely his consistency, is what comes under question.

William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Nylander can control games with his speed, puck control, and shot. He also has the ability to become completely invisible for long stretches. He can be magic with the puck but seems to lack the hound-doggedness that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have without the puck.  

Getting the Most Out of Nylander’s Ability

Either through his lack of willingness, or partially by the design of head coach Sheldon Keefe, Nylander appears content letting other players do the legwork to retrieve the puck and let them get it to him so he can do his thing. It’s this part of his game that attracts the ire of some Maple Leafs’ fans. 

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We stated “partially by the design of head coach Sheldon Keefe” because it’s the coach’s job to get the most out of a player’s ability. A coach could pull his hair out trying to get a player to change his stripes, or he can strive to utilize a player’s abilities and shield his weaknesses to get the most out of a player. The latter is what Keefe appears to be doing with Nylander. 

Nylander’s Skills Organize the Second Line’s Tasks

Nylander plays on the second line with center John Tavares and,  most commonly, left winger Alex Kerfoot. Both Tavares and Kerfoot are usually tasked with the corner work and puck retrieval, while Nylander works to get open.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nylander has two specific strengths that we see quite often. First, he’s able to get the puck quickly from the defensive zone to the offensive zone. Second, he might be the fastest skater on the team. His closest challenger was the now-departed Ilya Mikheyeh. Like Marner on the top line, his linemates get him the puck in the defensive zone and then head up ice.

Nylander’s Most Common Moves Entering the Offensive Zone

Where Nylander differs from Marner is when he enters the zone. Marner usually slows up inside the blueline and moves to the center of the ice as a way of giving himself the whole zone in front of him to work with. But Nylander’s most common move is to skate deeper into the corner, then turn outward with his back to the play. Once he’s completed that turn, he looks for options.  

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Unfortunately, that outward turn limits his options. Nylander is actually better when he enters the zone on his off-wing. When Nylander does come in on his off-wing and makes his turn back into the left corner of the zone, he now does it facing the middle of the ice. That gives him more options. On the rare occasion that he drives for the net, he usually does that from his off-wing.

We would like to see Nylander play the left wing more often. That would allow him to turn to his right to set up play or drive for the net more from his off-wing. He seems much stronger turning right than he does turning left.

Nylander’s Adding Skills to His Offensive Repertoire

The other strength Nylander has developed is getting open in front of the opposing net. The one part of his game that’s improved lately is his scoring from the down-low danger zones. Traditionally a player who scores from in tight does it by standing in front of the net, taking the pounding from the opposing defenders, and using his hand-eye coordination to deflect pucks, knock in rebounds, etc.  

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Nylander differs. He jumps in and out, goes behind the net, watches for a defenseman to leave his position, and then gets in behind them. Nylander is very successful doing that.

In Some Ways, Nylander Is Like Phil Kessel

As for his lack of defensive awareness, it does not mean he can’t be successful. To us, Nylander compares to Phil Kessel. He’s a career 35-goal scorer, who’s close to a point-a-game player. He’s great with the puck, but not so great without it.  

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Like Kessel, who not only helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win two Stanley Cups but who was in contention for the most valuable player in the playoffs in both runs for the Cup, Nylander can be an impactful player and an overall positive value to the team. 

From our perspective, Nylander’s offensive skills and prowess overcome his defensive deficiencies. He is what he is, and that ain’t that bad.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]