Playoffs will put Nylander’s improvement to the test

After a brutal 2018-19, the Leafs' William Nylander emerged as a force this season by going to the dirty areas to create turnovers and goals. But can he continue his progression in the playoffs when the going gets tougher?
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John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

BY LUKAS WEESE

It’s hard not to notice William Nylander. From the “hockey-flow” hair to his buzz-worthy Instagram posts, the Maple Leafs winger stands out. 

But it's on the ice where the team and fans hope he makes the biggest impact. After a disappointing 2018-19, defined by a contract holdout, Nylander’s marked improvement this season was welcome development for Toronto. 

Nylander skating and puck-moving looks effortless, but it's that style that draws criticism from his naysayers who question his toughness and his ability to produce against bigger, physical teams.

The numbers, however, suggest those concerns are misplaced. 

Nylander is one of the league leaders in offensive-zone takeaways, but more noteworthy is where those takeaways take place: the majority of Nylander's takeaways at even-strength come along the boards, where turnovers occur because of puck battles, not picked-off passes.

 Graph per evolving-hockey.com

Graph per evolving-hockey.com

While he may not win physical battles, Nylander is using smarts and hard work along the boards to gain control of the puck.

“One very underrated thing about William is the way he can win pucks back in terms of takeaways in the offensive zone,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe during a conference call. “He’s right near the top of the league in that regard.”

Nylander is also showing a propensity for going to the dirty areas, unlike last season where he struggled to score in front of the net. This year, generated a greater share of his goals from point-blank range.

Nylander 2018-19 Goals (via Icy Data)

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Nylander 2019-20 Goals (via Icy Data)

Screen Shot 2020-07-29 at 1.12.19 PM

And overall, getting in front of the net has translated into greater offensive production. Last season, Nylander recorded just seven goals in goals 54 games (0.13 GPG). This year, he recorded 31 goals in 68 games (.046 GPG).

Nylander also benefitted from Sheldon Keefe becoming the Leafs new coach. Keefe is more willing to adjust on a whim, which includes bunching the Leafs top forwards on the same line.

When this happened, the Leafs exploded on offense. Expected Goals For Percentage (XGF%) is a percentage of the expected goals that a team recorded compared to its opponent while Scoring Chances For Percentage (SCF%) measures the scoring opportunities for a combination of players on the ice at the same time. Using these metrics together can measure the potential offensive production of certain line combinations.

Data from Natural Stat Trick

Data from Natural Stat Trick

The most successful permutation is when Nylander is with John Tavares and Auston Matthews. With Nylander’s ability to hold onto the puck in the offensive zone, it leads to heightened scoring chances, given the talent of his linemates. 

“It’s no secret that we’ve got really good offensive players, so, yeah, we do have lots of opportunities there,” Keefe said. “It keeps the opposition on their toes, but most importantly, I think it just gives our guys a boost and it’s a change that can get things going.”

The challenge for Nylander is keeping his intensity levels up at all points during the game. At times, Nylander appears aloof and not always dialed in compared to his teammates. 

Keefe said working on this with Nylander, using film to illustrate where he needs to keep forechecking to ensure offensive zone time. 

“It’s part of Will’s nature, at times, to not be as engaged as you’d like him to be. And he needs a push,” Keefe said.

In a short, best-of-five series upcoming with the physical Columbus Blue Jackets, a fast start is required, and Nylander will have to prove he can be consistent throughout. For the improvement process to come full circle, Nylander needs to prove himself in the big moments of a playoff series.

“I mean, that’s where the big players show up,” Nylander said in a conference call, “and that’s where I think a big part of my game this year will help me become a dominant player in the playoffs.”

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